Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Book Review: Affliction by Russell Banks

AfflictionAffliction. Russell Banks. Harper Collins (1989). 355 pages. Genre: Fiction.

First Lines: "This is the story of my older brother's strange criminal behavior and his disappearance.  No one urged me to reveal these things; no one asked me not to. We who loved him simply no longer speak of Wade, not among ourselves and not with anyone else, either."

Summary:  Wade Whitehouse has lived in Lawford, New Hampshire his whole life.  While his brother and sister moved away, Wade stayed.  Right after graduation he married his high school sweetheart.  They have a daughter, but are now divorced.  Wade would really like to see more of his daughter.  Her mother is remarried and has moved away, so Wade only sees his daughter a couple of times a month.  Although, he often gets the feeling that she doesn't want to be there.  In fact, the last time she came to see him, she asked to go home. 

Most days he digs wells for Gordon LaRiviere, unless it has snowed, then he plows roads instead.  In addition to this work, he is also the town police officer.  In his free time, Wade can often be found at one of the local bars where he drinks to excess and usually gets in some kind of altercation.  Many mornings he doesn't remember how he got back to his trailer just outside of town.  Most people just expect this of Wade and are patiently waiting until the crisis passes.  His brother, Rolfe, however is worried.  Rolfe lives about an hour away and rarely comes back to Lawton.  Many nights Wade calls his brother and tells him his woes.  

When Wade disappears, Rolfe interviews everyone who had contact with him before his disappearance to try and piece together what happened.  This is Rolfe's story.

My thoughts:  I received this book via my Used Books Monthly subscription.  As I opened the book and began reading those first lines, I was hooked.  Russell Banks is a great storyteller who is able to make you feel like you are there.  The plot is compelling.  As Wade's brother tells the story he fills us in on things he and everyone else in town knows, but we do not. He also describes the landscape, the history of the area, the town and the people.

"A fast-flowing river, the Minuit, runs south through the town, and most of the buildings in Lawford - homes, stores, town hall and churches, no more than fifty buildings in the center in all - are situated on the east side of the river along a half-mile stretch of Route 29, the old Littleton-Lebanon road, replaced a generation ago by the interstate ten miles east."

I have never been to New Hampshire, but after reading this book I certainly feel like I have. 

"For the tens of thousands of years that these narrow valleys and abrupt hillsides have been populated by human beings, life has been characterized by winter, not summer. Warm weather, high blue skies and sunshine, flowers and showers - these are the aberrations.  What is normal is snow from early November well into May; normal is week after week of low zinc-gray overcast skies; is ice that cracks and booms as, closer every night to the bottom of the lake, a new layer of water cools, contracts and freezes beneath the layer of old ice above it."

These descriptive passages not only give the reader a good idea of what the area is like, they also set the tone for the story.  This is not a happy story.  It is sad and dark and bleak.  In many stories, Wade would seem like a monster.  However, Russell Banks helps us see his humanity.  The reader can relate to him, we have had similar thoughts and perhaps done similar things. As Rolfe is trying to piece together what happened, he is also trying to make sense of their upbringing.  Their father was an alcoholic and was abusive and Wade seems to have taken the brunt of that abuse. 

The narrative passages in the story are what kept me reading.  When there was dialogue, however, it was laced with profanity.  It was difficult to read and I often skimmed over much of it.  Fortunately, there were a lot of narrative passages!  There is also sexual content in the book.  

There is a lot to like about this book, but the profanity, the sexual content and the overall darkness of the book make it difficult for me to recommend. 


"A country boy and the third child in a taciturn family that left children early to their own devices, as if there were nothing coming in adult life worth preparing them for, Wade from infancy had found himself, often and for long periods of time, essentially alone."

"But somehow, the sight of that shrunken old man holding the flower before him in trembling hands, unsure of what to do with it, made us briefly forgive ourselves, perhaps, and allowed us to see him as she must have seen him, which is to say, allowed us to love him, and to know that she loved him and that there was no way we could have saved her from him, not Lena, surely, and not I, and not Wade."