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Banks' unpredictable stories dark, memorable

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The title of this new collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, seems to indicate that it contains positive stories of warmth, togetherness and traditional western values. Don't be fooled.

Russell Banks is a great American writer, but he's not a warm and fuzzy writer. His families are fractured, his characters are fretfully alone and they're not successful in their often meagre endeavours.

Banks has written 12 novels, two of which (Continental Drift and Cloud Splitter) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in literature. Two others (The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction) were adapted into award-winning movies.

His most recent novel, Lost Memory of Skin, was on more than a dozen noteworthy critics' lists of the best books of 2011.

His short stories are held in equally high regard, especially his previous collection, The Angel on the Roof (2000), which he selected from works done over his 30-year career.

This new collection (six of the 12 stories are previously unpublished) is distinguished by a great variety of subjects, characters, locales and points of view.

The title story, for instance, is told in the first person by a divorced father who wants to reclaim a story told at his expense for 35 years.

When he and his wife separated, she got custody of their four daughters and the family dog. To his dismay, he got the cat. But when the girls come to his house on visitations, the dog follows and won't go back to his wife's residence.

What happens on one of those visits is the crux of the plot. The ending makes you wonder whether he has in fact reclaimed his original story. Or whether he ever can.

This is a clever twist on the unreliable-narrator gambit that modernist writers like to play. The storyteller is not so much unreliable, however, as deluded.

The most personal story in the collection, Big Dog, concerns an installation artist who wins a so-called "genius grant" worth "a wheelbarrow of money" from the MacArthur Foundation.

Although he's supposed to keep the prize confidential, like King Midas, he tells four of his friends at a Christmas party. Initially happy for him and congratulatory, the friends change through the course of the evening.

Each one of them would be worth his or her own story. At times you wonder whether one or another of them will become the main focus. That happens regularly in this collection.

As a winner of many prestigious awards, Banks is likely writing from his own personal experiences and feelings. Not unexpectedly, he's ambivalent about awards.

Other memorable stories (told in the third person) are about an ex-marine with three sons in law enforcement who has to resort to robbing banks to make ends meet; a heart-transplant survivor who is reluctant to meet the girlfriend of his donor; a woman who gets locked inside a used car lot with a vicious dog; and guy stuck in an airport listening to an improbable story by a suspicious woman.

From these stories and others in this collection, it's clear that Banks has great compassion for his characters and prefers to dole out information about them strategically.

He also likes to play with audience expectations and to leave readers surprised by or wondering about the conclusions of the stories.

His endings are sudden, tentative, anti-climactic, ironic and curious. Because he is such a gifted writer, it's almost always a pleasure getting to the ends and rarely disappointing once you're there.

Banks has always been conscious about his place in literary tradition. He studies and learns from his predecessors and competitors -- Hemingway, Cheever, Carver and Dubus, for instance. He's certainly in that league.

A Permanent Member of the Family may not be prize-worthy. But its best stories will likely tempt you to turn to his previous collection and his riveting novels.

Gene Walz is a retired professor of film studies at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 A1

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