Book review: A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks

The lauded fiction writer's new tales remain compelling even as they present moral quandaries.

Photograph: Melissa Sinclair
By Russell Banks. Ecco, $26.

Two-time Pulitzer nominee Russell Banks, who was short-listed for last year’s  Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, continues his winning streak with his latest batch of short stories. Many of the dozen collected in A Permanent Member of the Family are set in either upstate New York or Miami, two places between which the author divides his time, lending a distinctive and palpable realism to the views from the railings of beachfront condos and windows of trucks driving through snowy streets.

In the title story, about a family dealing with divorce and shared custody of the children, Banks boils down the essence of many of his morality tales: “We all lose our innocence soon enough.… when one loses it prematurely…it feels unnatural, violent and unnecessary, a permanent, gratuitous wounding.” In “Blue,” an African-American women is accidentally locked in a used-car lot and trapped by a vicious guard dog. As a local network crew interviews her and subsequently leaves her to her gruesome fate, Banks creates a gripping story, while indicting the shallowness of our reality-TV-obsessed culture. This balance of narrative and pointed commentary buoys the collection; it’s often quite dark, but it’s stirring stuff.

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