It is not for nothing that Russell Banks is often thought of as a novelist of blue-collar America. While his ten previous novels have spanned time and continents, from the Haitian coast to rural New Hampshire to the Liberian jungle, more often than not they land, however glancingly, among the townspeople of Adirondack New York. With The Reserve, Banks has again transported us to his local wilderness, only this time he has added the trappings of historical fiction.
Set in the 1930s at an elite mountain sanctuary where wealthy New Yorkers come to play rugged, The Reserve exploits the theatricality promised by this backdrop from the outset. Banks opens with a beautiful, elegant woman slipping away from a party to take in the rustic sunset. Those assembled — urbane Yale graduates and their wives, industrialists and real estate magnates — barely notice her departure until a tiny airplane piloted by a famous artist sweeps down over the lake. Upon finishing this scene, it is hard not to wonder: is this really Banks? Where is the invocation of story, the hard-edged voice announcing its intent to relate a tale of no particular singularity? In both tone and subject, Banks seems to be, at least on the surface of things, up to something well beyond his usual range: there is fashion, a “cream-colored, low-necked, beltless frock by Muriel King,” there is a chauffeured car, there is an expensive collection of paintings. There is, in essence, money.
Banks’s departure from his usual canvas is admirable, but by so dramatically reorienting his scope, his prose loses some of the organic touch that is its signature. A master of the laconic, bottled emotions of the working man, Banks seems ill at ease with the refinements of the leisure class. His feel for the raw beauty of the Reserve produces stunning scenery — “brassy edges of the clouds turn to molten gold” and the “broad shadow of the mountains spread
across the lake” — but the characters who inhabit these surroundings never quite share this steady naturalism. Vanessa Cole, the aforementioned elegant young woman and centerpiece of the novel’s unfolding drama, is a “tall, slender figure” with “long, confident strides.” Jordan Groves, the artist-cum-pilot, is introduced by the following description:
The pilot was a large man, in his early forties, tall and broad, with big, square hands, and moved with the grace of a man who liked the feel and appearance of his own body, although he did not seem to be vain. His black straight hair fell loosely forward over his brow and gave him a harried, slightly worried look?He had very dark, almost black, deep-set eyes, and a prominent, long arc of a nose, and his face was wide, with a jutting chin, slightly underslung.
There is an overexertion here, an anxiety, almost, about forcing his characters to compete with the richness of their landscape. In venturing in to this new territory — the awkward enmeshing of social classes from both sides of the spectrum — the author divides up his cast a touch too neatly: we get the capricious heiress, the brooding artist, and, later, in the mountain guide Hubert St. Germain, the very model of homespun integrity. Banks’s efforts to set the stage for his story can at times feel stiff, and it is not until all of his characters are mired in the familiar terrain of heartbreak that the author finally begins to get comfortable.
The Reserve gains momentum around an unlikely love triangle (or quadrilateral, really) between Vanessa, Jordan and his Viennese wife, Alicia, and Hubert, who is acting as caretaker to the Cole family estate. As Jordan falls prey to the coy seductions of Vanessa, the distant Alicia resolves to bring her long-standing affair with Hubert to an abrupt close. It is in the figure of Hubert that Banks best realizes his strengths. Though he tends to idealize the reticent morality of the common man — Hubert is something of an archetype — his presence in the novel leads Banks onto richer ground. The Adirondack economy, and the strange interdependence it fosters between wealthy summer visitors “from away” and the local working class, is a subject that Banks has toyed with before, but never so directly as he does in The Reserve. In his previous novel, The Darling, Banks took a hard look at the inherent tensions between radical politics and the privileged citizens who are so often its most prominent agents. Here, prompted by Vanessa’s extreme measures to preserve her inheritance (not to mention her melodramatic conviction that her mother intends to have her lobotomized in a Swiss asylum), the various pressures of class all combust as this quartet’s lives become intertwined, sending the novel tumbling toward its chaotic conclusion.
Jordan, despite his reputation as a leftist revolutionary, spends more time dwelling upon his own personal infidelities and corresponding guilt than he does the economic realities of Depression-era America. “It made no sense,” Jordan thinks, trying to fathom his wife’s relationship with Hubert:
None. Except for the old perennial sexual attraction of the bourgeois woman for the proletarian male. That must be it. It was an attraction that Jordan Groves, no matter how radical his politics, was unable to generate for himself, except among aristocratic women. Aristocratic women, he believed, had the same weakness for men like him as Alicia had for men like Hubert. That’s the explanation, he thought, it’s all about class.
While The Reserve fancies itself a meditation on the interplay of class, sex proves a much more volatile fictive ingredient than politics: in the end, it requires a sexual misadventure of cataclysmic consequence for Jordan to enlist to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In the past, Banks has demonstrated a certain fondness for the dual narrative, and The Reserve finds him again jumping between storylines. Between each chapter, he has inserted short sketches of pre-WWII Europe, where Jordan is now a fighter pilot and Vanessa is en route to Switzerland after all, traveling on the famed Hindenburg. These forecasts of what is in store for our heroes, perhaps meant to lend the insular happenings of the Adirondacks a sweeping historical weight, ultimately have the opposite effect. Rather than broadening the range of Banks’s vision, the decision to infuse the Adirondacks’ strictly anti-cosmopolitan setting with an element of continental glitz detracts from the cloistered intensity that Banks had so deftly built up in the wilds of the Reserve. Hemingway and Dos Passos may flit across its pages, but The Reserve never quite achieves the historical gravitas to which it aspires. It is when it contents itself with smaller intimacies that the novel feels most true.