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In Family Life, Russell Banks's first novel, he transforms the dramas of domesticity into the story of a royal family in a mythical contemporary kingdom. Life inside this kingdom includes the king (dubbed "the Hearty" or "the Bluff"), who squeals angrily as is his wont; the queen, who, while pondering the mirror in her chambers, decides to write a book; three adolescent princes who are, respectively, a superb wrestler, a fanatical sports car driver, and a sullen drunk. Then there are the mysterious Green Man with...
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In Family Life, Russell Banks's first novel, he transforms the dramas of domesticity into the story of a royal family in a mythical contemporary kingdom. Life inside this kingdom includes the king (dubbed "the Hearty" or "the Bluff"), who squeals angrily as is his wont; the queen, who, while pondering the mirror in her chambers, decides to write a book; three adolescent princes who are, respectively, a superb wrestler, a fanatical sports car driver, and a sullen drunk. Then there are the mysterious Green Man with a thing for princes; the Loon, who lives in a tree house designed by Christopher Wren; and a whole slew of murders, mayhem, coups, debauches, world tours, and love and loss and laughter.
To go back to the beginning would be fruitless, timewasting, pretentious. It's much more productive, faster and more sincere to commence in medias res with the king squealing angrily, the princes, all three of them, lolling through their extended adolescences, the queen quietly comforting herself in her chambers, and the several secondary characters gathered together in small groups scattered variously about the palace-the Green Man (so-called), the Loon, the Twit, Genghis, etc., etc.
This, then, is not unlike the opening scene of a favorite opera, The Trojans, by Hector Berlioz (after The Aeneid, by Virgil), Part 1, "The Sacking of Troy." That is, one thinks of that narrator, and of Cassandra, Coroebus, Andromache, Astyanax, Aeneas, Priam, Hecuba, Panthus, Helenus, Ascanius, Polyxena, Hector's Ghost, and others (in order of appearance), and one thinks of Troy or Carthage or of a castlelike citadel inside a ravaged city, of city walls and a vast plain beyond, and one recalls that particular narrative line and obtains thereby a pretty fair idea of how it all begins.
This is intended, actually, to be a family story, after the Greeks. But after Thomas Wolfe, too. And Gertrude Stein. Certain late nineteenth-century Russian novelists. William Faulkner. Marcel Proust. Thomas Hardy. Henry James. D. H. Lawrence. New England poets of the mid-twentieth century. Andre Gide. The Scandinavian playwrights. Truman Capote. Wright Morris. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Vladimir Nabokov. John Milton. Philip Roth. George Bernard Shaw. Washington Irving. James Agee and Walker Evans. Charles Dickens. Harriet Beecher Stowe. SigmundFreud. Eudora Welty. William Burroughs, Jr. Laurence Sterne. Thorstein Veblen. William Carlos Williams. Edna Ferber. The Grimm Brothers. William Saroyan. Anton Chekhov. William of Occam. James Branch Cabell. JohnSteinbeck. Ellen Glasgow. Sarah Orne Jewett. Frank Norris. Katherine Anne Porter. J. D. Salinger. Franz Kafka. Anne Frank. Sinclair Lewis. Bede. Erskine Caldwell. Charles Addams. Tennessee Williams. James T Farrell. Rollo May. Giovanni Boccaccio. Theodore Dreiser. Elia Kazan. Sherwood Anderson. Henry Fielding. Louisa May Alcott. Zelda Fitzgerald. Oscar Handlin. Thornton Wilder. Flannery O'Connor. The King James Version of the Old Testament. William Makepeace Thackeray. Ed Sanders. Jane Austen. Ignazio Silone. Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ernest Jones. And Ford Madox Ford. -- After these, too.
After them in time, of course, if not in manner. Yet also,, and perhaps more important than either time or manner, after them in a subtler way, and suggesting through that a previously unrecognized, yet ancient tradition, the nature of which should be apparent as soon as one has considered which authors, insofar as their names are absent above, cannot be said to participate in that tradition: The Tradition of the Bloody Orange.
Someone appears on the horizon as a black speck, a fly stuck against the lavender sky. He draws closer and Closer, at first slowly and then more rapidly, until he has drawn face-to-face with the viewer, whereat he is repelled. He tries not to reveal the depth and extent of his revulsion, nausea, disgust, boredom, by describing himself, his family, his friends and lovers, and the enemies of all. At last, unable to conceal his true feelings any longer, he draws from the leather pouch at his waist a large Florida orange (of the hybrid type, called "navel"). He brings the perfect sphere slowly up to his mouth, which is ample, and chomps suddenly into it, splattering billows of blood over his face, hands, green lame shirt and tan suede boots. Then, continuing to eat at the orange, he turns and withdraws quickly to the horizon again, where he remains, a speck of changing color from black to red to orange and sometimes (to the naked eye) appearing cadmium yellow or even, as he should, green. From such a distance, he is quite beautiful to observe, changing color like that, especially against the lavender sky!
This is the start of the action. A handsome youth who ;wore slick green suits and strangely decorated hats went to the king with three sons and expressed in public a passionate desire to have one of the sons for his lover.
-- I don't care which one, he cried. -- Any of them will satisfy me. I have this thing about princes, he said.
For two days and nights, the king ambled down the manytapestried corridors of the palace, I laughing and murmuring to himself. -- A thing about princes, indeed. That's rich!
It was a late, amber-colored afternoon. In' the gymnasium the three princes piacticed the sports. Naked and oiled, they ran and kicked and threw. Soft light from the windows above drifted down and shimmered over their sleek bodies.
One of the ballboys attending them, a cripple desperately seeking favor and possible advancement, told them about the young man in the slick green suit and his strange request. The way the ballboy told it, the man's request was actually a demand, ominously put.
-- He gave your father, His Royal Highness the King, just three days to decide which one it would be, the ballboy told the athletes.
They laughed and called the ballboy a twit. -- Far out, twit! they teased.
In defense of himself, the ballboy changed his story and said that he'd made up the part about the funny-looking hat with the geraniums in it and the tan suede boots and the moustache and even the accent with all the flat As. But it availed him nothing. The princes pelted him with handballs, badminton birdies, medicine balls, and basketballs. They even fell to rolling a shot put at his feet, aiming for the arches. They were disturbed.
The king fucked the queen on two successive nights, keeping the lights on throughout copulation on both occasions. He was obviously disturbed.
-- I like a plucky faggot, he breathlessly confided to the queen after each of her orgasms. After his own, however, he remained silent.