The Angel on the Roof: The Stories of Russell Banks

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Overview

After nine critically acclaimed novels, Russell Banks has firmly established himself as one of the great American novelists. But throughout his career Banks has also been a master of the short form, publishing four story collections, winning O. Henry and Best American Short Story Awards and other prizes, and contributing stories to such publications as Esquire, New American Review, Antaeus, Mississippi Review, and Partisian Review. Now, with The Angel on the Roof, Banks offers readers an astonighsing collection ...
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Overview

After nine critically acclaimed novels, Russell Banks has firmly established himself as one of the great American novelists. But throughout his career Banks has also been a master of the short form, publishing four story collections, winning O. Henry and Best American Short Story Awards and other prizes, and contributing stories to such publications as Esquire, New American Review, Antaeus, Mississippi Review, and Partisian Review. Now, with The Angel on the Roof, Banks offers readers an astonighsing collection of thirty years of his short fiction. As is characteristic of all Banks's works, these stories resonate with irony and compassion, honsty and insight, extending into the vast territory of the heart and world, from working-class New England to Florida and the Caribbean and Africa. Along with nine new stories that are among the finest fiction he has ever written, Banks has selected the best pieces from his previous collections and revised them especially for this volume. Broad in scope and rich in imagination, The Angel on the Roof is a true representation of the breadth of Russell Bank's work and affirms his place on one of the masters of American storytelling.
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Editorial Reviews

Newsday
His new book, The Angel on the Roof, includes nine new stories and twenty-two from previous collections. At age sixty, Banks seems to be going from strength to strength. The new ones are among his best. . . .Unfathomable, grangrenous, necessary, the urge to create continues to push Russell banks to new levels of excellence,
Nation
His prose has the precise force of a steady, measured outrage...He writes with a more merciless exactitude than Dreiser ever had, and with greater and more self-conscious skill.
Village Voice
Banks's stories, openly embracing perplexity and edging toward wisdom, deliver us from banality.
Boston Globe
Russell Banks is a writer of extraordinary power.
New York Post
This collection of short stories displays the same strong sense of character and prose style that have distinguished his novels.
San Diego Union Tribune
Banks has selected thirty-one stories from his four previous collections. . .and from others that have appeared in periodicals. In them, he wrestles with the angel until it blesses him with the transformative power of art.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Two-thirds of the 32 stories in this magnificent collection have appeared before, in the four volumes of short fiction Banks has published over the past 25 years; all, including nine new ones, were chosen by the author as representative of work that "did not on rereading make me cringe." Banks is a born short story writer and confesses he loves the form; in many of the entries here, the impact is all the more powerful for the intense concentration he brings to bear on the desperate lives he so often chooses to chronicle. The best of these tales, many of them set in the sad New Hampshire trailer park that was the basis for an entire collection of linked tales, tell of the anguish of parents and children moving apart, of husbands and wives and lovers facing the grim certainty that nothing in their relationships is going to change or improve. "The Burden," about a man's despairing break with his no-good son; "Quality Time," about a daughter realizing she has finally moved away from her father; "Firewood," about a couple trapped by ruined expectations; and "Queen for a Day," about a small boy's efforts to cheer up his failing mother, are almost unbearably poignant, unflinching glimpses into the dark recesses of life, illuminated by Banks's unfailing compassion and steady eye and ear. These stories, like his wintry northern landscapes, are deeply lived in. Yet Banks can be equally evocative of exotic corners of the world, as in "Djinn" and "The Fish," mysterious fables set in Africa and India. Only in such flights as "Indisposed," an imagining of William Hogarth's wife, or "With Che in New Hampshire," in which he mixes myth and actuality, does Banks seem on more tentative ground. But most of the stories strike home swiftly and surely, reminding a reader again and again of the amplitude of the form in the hands of a master. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Banks originally wanted to be a poet but felt he lacked the Muse. Yet poetic imagery informs the novels for which he is best known as well as the short stories in this collection. Presented here are 31 short fictions; 22 have been in previous collections, and nine are recent and uncollected. All of the earlier stories have been revised, and Banks says sagely of his means of selection, "I chose to include only those that did not on rereading make me cringe with embarrassment." The collection is permeated by a wise sadness, and the brilliant use of language stands out against the hard-living, hard-drinking underclass that generally populates these stories, as it does the novels. Take the most recent, "Lobster Night," set in a roughish upstate New York roadhouse trying to upscale itself a little, where "stories" from the characters (being struck by lightning, a bear attack) set a thematic backdrop for a chain of death-related events that leads to a homicide. A lot goes on in a few pages in all the stories here; this is a master writer at his best. Very highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/00.]--Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Scott
For all its harshness, The Angel on the Roof is studded with surprising, hard-won acts of tenderness and decency, which feel more like operations of earthly grace than projections of authorial sentiment. Banks acknowledges that the world is a cold place and redeems it with the warmth of his affection.
The New York Times Book Review
Janet Maslin
At his shattering best...Mr. Banks offers answers that are tough, honest and inevitable without being simple...[A] beautifully lucid, frequently wrenching collection . . . What elevates these stories far above their tacitly heartbreaking events are the vast reserves of compassion and wisdom that Mr. Banks brings to framing tragedy.
The New York Times
Daniel Mendelsohn
Ranging over nearly 40 years of writing The Angel on the Roof is an invaluable guide to this author's obsessions, strengths, and weaknesses...Banks' short fiction may be uneven, but it's no mean measure of this artist's artistry and humanity that he can see in his failed, foolish adults the helpless and frightened children they surely once were.
New York
Kirkus Reviews
Like Banks's many fine novels (Cloudsplitter, 1997, etc.), these short works are generally realistic in style and subject matter, with an occasional fable-inflected exception like "The Fish." About two-thirds of the 31 tales appeared in such previous books as Searching for Survivors (1975), whose title story makes nice use of cars and Henry Hudson's voyages as metaphors, and Success Stories (1986), including the characteristically somber yet tender "Queen for a Day," about a working-class New Hampshire family whose alcoholic father has just left at the behest of his fed-up wife. The nine previously uncollected tales are recent works with demonstrable thematic links to past efforts. Among those, "The Moor" tells a gently melancholy story of a middle-aged man unexpectedly confronted with the 80-year-old woman who was (probably) his first lover; "Lobster Nights" chronicles shattered dreams and subsequent violence. Banks's lovely "By Way of an Introduction" muses on the meaning of stories as revealed by those his parents told, concluding that they are both appeals for love and prayers to "an angel on the roof" who is seldom listening. One of our best and most ambitious novelists reminds us with this collection just how good his short fiction can be.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781482968644
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 11/12/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 2.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Russell Banks is one of America's most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.

Biography

Born in New England on March 28, 1940, Russell Banks was raised in a hardscrabble, working-class world that has profoundly shaped his writing. In Banks's compassionate, unlovely tales, people struggle mightily against economic hardship, family conflict, addictions, violence, and personal tragedy; yet even in the face of their difficulties, they often exhibit remarkable resilience and moral strength.

Although he began his literary career as a poet, Banks forayed into fiction in 1975 with a short story collection Searching for Survivors and his debut novel, Family Life. Several more critically acclaimed works followed, but his real breakthrough occurred with 1985's Continental Drift, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel that juxtaposes the startlingly different experiences of two families in America. In 1998, he earned another Pulitzer nomination for his historical novel Cloudsplitter, an ambitious re-creation of abolitionist John Brown.

Since the 1980s, Banks has lived in upstate New York -- a region he (like fellow novelists William Kennedy and Richard Russo) has mined to great effect in several novels. Two of his most powerful stories, Affliction (1990) and The Sweet Hereafter (1991), have been adapted for feature films. (At least two others have been optioned.) He has also received numerous honors and literary awards, including the prestigious John Dos Passos Prize for fiction.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      March 28, 1940
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newton, Massachusetts

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Dancing With My Eyes Closed

When I began writing nearly forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closest to lyric poetry. Unable to court successfully the queen of the arts, I turned my attention to her lady-in-waiting. This is not a rare form of abandonment (as Faulkner famously observed, "All fiction writers are failed poets"), but in any event, it's clear enough to me why I abandoned poetry early, almost too early to have failed at it, for the short story. Too many of my close friends at college and shortly afterwards obviously had the gifts (of language, wit, personal charm, good looks--whatever it took to woo and win the favors of the queen's main muse), and by unavoidable comparison to poetry-writing friends like William Matthews, James Tate, and Charles Simic, I was tongue-tied, humorless, bad-mannered, and homely. No wonder I turned to prose fiction.

Before leaving, however, I did publish a fair number of those early poems in obscure--but not obscure enough- literary magazines and journals and published two chapbooks of poetry in small--but not small enough--editions. They show up now and then in the hands of collectors at book-signings, and it's all I can do to keep from tearing the book from the collector's hands and starting an auto-da-fe with it right there in the store. I'm not so much ashamed of those poor poems as embarrassed by the vanity of my youthful ambition, by its evident (to me, now) transparency, and am comforted a bit only by calling to mind Nathaniel Howthorne's first book, an absolutely awful bodice- ripperentitled Fanshawe, self-published in an edition of perhaps 500 copies that he spent his life afterwards quietly seeking out, purchasing, and destroying by fire, in the process (since he got all but a handful of copies) making it one of the rarest, most expensive books in American literature.

Unable to cohabit with lyric poetry, I, like my illustrious ancestor, took up temporary residence instead with her nearest neighbor, the short story, and only later moved across town as he did, to settle more or less permanently, I thought, with the novel. In the intervening years, though I've written a dozen or so novels and remain faithful to the form and its power, it's nonetheless the story form that thrills me. It invites me today, still, as it did those many years ago, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more stylistically elaborate that is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely exploration and slow growth. By contrast, stories are like a perfect wave, if one is a surfer; or a love affair, if one is a lover. They forgive one's mercurial nature, reward one's longing for ecstasy, and make of one's short memory a virtue. They keep an old man or woman young, so to speak.

A year ago, last winter, after a decade and a half of writing only novels--four of them, actually, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter- arduous years uninterrupted by my usual, earlier practice of following a novel with a wild and crazy year or two of short-story writing (as a respite, I suppose, but also merely to release my brain from the sort of obsessional thinking that goes with novel-writing), I finally sat down and over the course of the next six months wrote nine new stories. I felt almost wanton and promiscuous. My delight, however, was tinged mysteriously with guilt. Maybe I'd been having too much fun, or perhaps, as if dancing wildly with my eyes closed, I had inadvertently made a fool of myself in public, revealed too much of my secret, subconscious self. Troubled and intrigued, I decided to examine and evaluate earlier instances of this reckless behavior and went back and, for the first time in many years, re-read my four previously published collections of stories, Searching for Survivors, The New World, Trailerpark, and Success Stories, a group of nearly one hundred stories in all.

Many of them, most of them, were terrible, as bad as my poems, and evoked in me the same embarrassment and shame as had the poems--for the vanity of my youthful (and in many cases not-so-youthful) ambition and its ability to cloud my mind and warp my judgement. Why, I wondered, had I even published them? Why couldn't I have made such terrible mistakes in private? It was a depressing and humbling read. Not that they were technically inept. In general, the stories were skillfully executed, stylish in the several popular modes of the 1960's and 1970's--minimalist after Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, meta-fictional after Barthelme, Barth, Gass, and Coover, sometimes braiding the two formalist tendencies in a single story, as if the tendencies were not, as their respective adherents claimed, opposed to one another.

No, what depressed and humbled me was what I saw lurking behind the surface of the story--the personality and character of the author himself, the young writer whose all-too-evident rage, pride, and insecurity were sabotaging his attempts to write stories that stood a chance of outliving him. Obviously, I knew a great deal about him already, his difficult childhood, his turbulent adolescence, his failed (as he viewed them) first and second marriages, and so on; but it was the stories themselves that gave him away. So many of them, it seemed, had been written to obscure the degree to which their author had no idea of who he was or what he was doing or whether he was any good at it. Preoccupied with the self, rather than with the world, they were the work of a young man who too often judged his characters, especially the characters who most closely resembled the author himself; and when he did not judge them, he idealized them, hovering like a custodial parent above the same character he'd just condemned, the one resembling the author. His characters were stand-ins for his shifting, unreliable opinions of himself. Thus his reliance on fashion, on the popular story-telling modes of the time.

A few of the stories, once I gave them a second look, did not embarrass me. Quite the opposite. They were the real thing, freed, it seemed to me, from the authorial vanity and literary self-consciousness. And I could see that, with a snip here, and a tuck there, if I sucked in their stomachs and adjusted the lighting a bit, they might, even to me, seem capable of successfully courting the nearest relative of the queen of the arts. These were, for the most part, stories about single mothers, blue-collar working men and women, elderly people, a retired army colonel, a gay bank clerk, and so on-characters who did not much resemble their neurotic young author. The few whose demographic profile did match the author's portrayed him only as a child or adolescent, twenty or more years earlier, beyond judgement, beyond idealization, no longer subject to his rage, pride, or insecurity. Forgiven.

Of the nearly one hundred stories previously published in book form, I selected twenty-two that I wanted to revise and keep into my old age. The rest I decided could and should be consigned to the dustbin of juvenilia, even though some of them had been written when I was in my forties. With those twenty-two revised early stories and the nine new ones now in hand--and ample, mixed bouquet displayed in my publisher's handsome yet unpretentious vase--I might knock at the muse's door and be let in. I might be almost-a-poet yet.

In June when this new book is published, I will have just turned sixty. And while re-reading, rejecting and finally revising the best of them has been a little like visiting with my past and all-but-forgotten selves, re-acquainting myself with the man I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, and so on, it has also revealed to me the man I was not. Not then, anyhow, and maybe not now or ever. Unsurprisingly, the kid in his twenties who wrote "Searching for Survivors," one of the earliest stories included, a somewhat melancholy, dreamy, self-dramatizing fellow with a lyrical impulse running through his every perception, turns out to be not significantly different than the more ironic, bemused, and plain-spoken, late-middle-aged man who at the age of fifty-nine wrote the most recent stories in the collection. I have come to see that most of the stories I left behind, like my earlier selves, were failed experiments which at the time of their composition were necessary for me to have attempted, for I would not have learned my craft if I had not written them. And while I now wish that I had not afterwards submitted them for publication, I nonetheless must admit that had I not published them, first in magazines and later in books, I doubt that I'd be able today to recognize them as failures. If I'd tossed them out while they were still in manuscript form, if I'd strangled my darlings in their beds, as Flannery O'Connor advised young writers to do, I would not have learned from them as much as I have. In cold print, in black and white, wildly dancing eyes-closed in public for all to see, those experiments, like my early poems, like my early selves, taught me what I have no talent for and, in the end, no abiding interest in.

The Angel on the Roof. Copyright © by Russell Banks. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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First Chapter

"Dancing With My Eyes Closed"

When I began writing nearly forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closest to lyric poetry. Unable to court successfully the queen of the arts, I turned my attention to her lady-in-waiting. This is not a rare form of abandonment (as Faulkner famously observed, "All fiction writers are failed poets"), but in any event, it's clear enough to me why I abandoned poetry early, almost too early to have failed at it, for the short story. Too many of my close friends at college and shortly afterwards obviously had the gifts (of language, wit, personal charm, good looks-- whatever it took to woo and win the favors of the queen's main muse), and by unavoidable comparison to poetry-writing friends like William Matthews, James Tate, and Charles Simic, I was tongue-tied, humorless, bad-mannered, and homely. No wonder I turned to prose fiction.

Before leaving, however, I did publish a fair number of those early poems in obscure--but not obscure enough- literary magazines and journals and published two chapbooks of poetry in small-- but not small enough-- editions. They show up now and then in the hands of collectors at book-signings, and it's all I can do to keep from tearing the book from the collector's hands and starting an auto-da-fe with it right there in the store. I'm not so much ashamed of those poor poems as embarrassed by the vanity of my youthful ambition, by its evident (to me, now) transparency, and am comforted a bit only by calling to mind Nathaniel Howthorne's first book, an absolutely awful bodice- ripper entitled Fanshawe, self-published in an edition of perhaps 500 copies that he spent his life afterwards quietly seeking out, purchasing, and destroying by fire, in the process (since he got all but a handful of copies) making it one of the rarest, most expensive books in American literature.

Unable to cohabit with lyric poetry, I, like my illustrious ancestor, took up temporary residence instead with her nearest neighbor, the short story, and only later moved across town as he did, to settle more or less permanently, I thought, with the novel. In the intervening years, though I've written a dozen or so novels and remain faithful to the form and its power, it's nonetheless the story form that thrills me. It invites me today, still, as it did those many years ago, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more stylistically elaborate that is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely exploration and slow growth. By contrast, stories are like a perfect wave, if one is a surfer; or a love affair, if one is a lover. They forgive one's mercurial nature, reward one's longing for ecstasy, and make of one's short memory a virtue. They keep an old man or woman young, so to speak.

A year ago, last winter, after a decade and a half of writing only novels-four of them, actually, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter- arduous years uninterrupted by my usual, earlier practice of following a novel with a wild and crazy year or two of short-story writing (as a respite, I suppose, but also merely to release my brain from the sort of obsessional thinking that goes with novel-writing), I finally sat down and over the course of the next six months wrote nine new stories. I felt almost wanton and promiscuous. My delight, however, was tinged mysteriously with guilt. Maybe I'd been having too much fun, or perhaps, as if dancing wildly with my eyes closed, I had inadvertently made a fool of myself in public, revealed too much of my secret, subconscious self. Troubled and intrigued, I decided to examine and evaluate earlier instances of this reckless behavior and went back and, for the first time in many years, re-read my four previously published collections of stories, Searching for Survivors, The New World, Trailerpark, and Success Stories, a group of nearly one hundred stories in all.

Many of them, most of them, were terrible, as bad as my poems, and evoked in me the same embarrassment and shame as had the poems-- for the vanity of my youthful (and in many cases not-so-youthful) ambition and its ability to cloud my mind and warp my judgement. Why, I wondered, had I even published them? Why couldn't I have made such terrible mistakes in private? It was a depressing and humbling read. Not that they were technically inept. In general, the stories were skillfully executed, stylish in the several popular modes of the 1960's and 1970's-minimalist after Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, meta-fictional after Barthelme, Barth, Gass, and Coover, sometimes braiding the two formalist tendencies in a single story, as if the tendencies were not, as their respective adherents claimed, opposed to one another.

No, what depressed and humbled me was what I saw lurking behind the surface of the story-the personality and character of the author himself, the young writer whose all-too-evident rage, pride, and insecurity were sabotaging his attempts to write stories that stood a chance of outliving him. Obviously, I knew a great deal about him already, his difficult childhood, his turbulent adolescence, his failed (as he viewed them) first and second marriages, and so on; but it was the stories themselves that gave him away. So many of them, it seemed, had been written to obscure the degree to which their author had no idea of who he was or what he was doing or whether he was any good at it. Preoccupied with the self, rather than with the world, they were the work of a young man who too often judged his characters, especially the characters who most closely resembled the author himself; and when he did not judge them, he idealized them, hovering like a custodial parent above the same character he'd just condemned, the one resembling the author. His characters were stand-ins for his shifting, unreliable opinions of himself. Thus his reliance on fashion, on the popular story-telling modes of the time.

A few of the stories, once I gave them a second look, did not embarrass me. Quite the opposite. They were the real thing, freed, it seemed to me, from the authorial vanity and literary self-consciousness. And I could see that, with a snip here, and a tuck there, if I sucked in their stomachs and adjusted the lighting a bit, they might, even to me, seem capable of successfully courting the nearest relative of the queen of the arts. These were, for the most part, stories about single mothers, blue-collar working men and women, elderly people, a retired army colonel, a gay bank clerk, and so on-characters who did not much resemble their neurotic young author. The few whose demographic profile did match the author's portrayed him only as a child or adolescent, twenty or more years earlier, beyond judgement, beyond idealization, no longer subject to his rage, pride, or insecurity. Forgiven.

Of the nearly one hundred stories previously published in book form, I selected twenty-two that I wanted to revise and keep into my old age. The rest I decided could and should be consigned to the dustbin of juvenilia, even though some of them had been written when I was in my forties. With those twenty-two revised early stories and the nine new ones now in hand-and ample, mixed bouquet displayed in my publisher's handsome yet unpretentious vase-I might knock at the muse's door and be let in. I might be almost-a-poet yet.

In June when this new book is published, I will have just turned sixty. And while re-reading, rejecting and finally revising the best of them has been a little like visiting with my past and all-but-forgotten selves, re-acquainting myself with the man I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, and so on, it has also revealed to me the man I was not. Not then, anyhow, and maybe not now or ever. Unsurprisingly, the kid in his twenties who wrote "Searching for Survivors," one of the earliest stories included, a somewhat melancholy, dreamy, self-dramatizing fellow with a lyrical impulse running through his every perception, turns out to be not significantly different than the more ironic, bemused, and plain-spoken, late-middle-aged man who at the age of fifty-nine wrote the most recent stories in the collection. I have come to see that most of the stories I left behind, like my earlier selves, were failed experiments which at the time of their composition were necessary for me to have attempted, for I would not have learned my craft if I had not written them. And while I now wish that I had not afterwards submitted them for publication, I nonetheless must admit that had I not published them, first in magazines and later in books, I doubt that I'd be able today to recognize them as failures. If I'd tossed them out while they were still in manuscript form, if I'd strangled my darlings in their beds, as Flannery O'Connor advised young writers to do, I would not have learned from them as much as I have. In cold print, in black and white, wildly dancing eyes-closed in public for all to see, those experiments, like my early poems, like my early selves, taught me what I have no talent for and, in the end, no abiding interest in.

Read More Show Less

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