Russell Banks was born in Newton, Massachusetts and grew up in New Hampshire. He comes from a working-class background and was the first person from his family to go to university. While he was studying he also painted and worked as a shoe salesman and plumber. His first book was published when he was 35 years old. At the same time his short stories and essays appeared in magazines such as “Vanity Fair”, “The New York Times Book Review”, “Esquire” and “Harper’s”. He has taught at many different universities, most recently at Princeton.
Banks’ stories are often concerned with his own milieu. Lying at the heart of these stories are strong characters, whose idealism often induces them to take extreme actions. Employing a traditionally American writing style, Banks demonstrates realistically, authentically and suspensefully how sensitivity and inhumanity are closely interlinked. In doing so he bestows a more sophisticated manner to the limited speech of his protagonists and thereby tells their stories with sympathy and humour, producing an unintrusive moral impact. “Rule of the Bone”, a type of novel about growing up in the tradition of Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”, was published in 1995. In this novel the main character is a teenager who is addicted to drugs and who has turned to small-time crime. He longingly rebels against the squalidness which surrounds him and which seems to offer him no chance in the world. Banks uses epic monologue and a skillfully employed youth slang to give account of the way the teenager tries out different roles, goes through phases and makes formative friendships until his drivenness is replaced with the self-determination of adulthood. His novel “Cloudsplitter” (1998) deals with an American myth and ends with much less optimism. The protagonist John Brown shares a likeness with Michael Kohlhaas and was like him an historical figure. He was a religiously motivated opponent to slavery, whose activist nature developed into a militant fanaticism. He was put to death after a suicidal attempt to provoke a rebellion amongst slaves by invading an ammunition depot in the confederate states. The story is told from the perspective of the son who is sceptical and has an ambivalent relationship to his tyrannous father.
Two of Banks’ novels “The Sweet Hereafter” (1991) and “Affliction” (1989) have also successfully been made into films. Films of the books “Continental Drift” (1985) and “Rule of the Bone” are in the process of being made. Banks’ work has been translated into over twenty languages. He has won numerous literary prizes including the John Dos Passos Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize for Literature. He was president of the International Parliament of Writers for four years, an organisation which especially supports authors who are under threat, and was made New York State Author in 2004. His most recent novel “The Darling” was published in 2004. He lives in Keene, New York, and Saratoga Springs.
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