A man of many words
Russell Banks' new novel encompasses 1960s activism, war-torn Liberia and the fate of the chimpanzees

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, October 17, 2004

The outbuilding where novelist Russell Banks writes is perched in a clearing alongside an Adirondack brook, enveloped by a stand of white birch trees.

The small, gray structure was a sugarhouse in a previous life. Huge pots of clear, watery maple sap were boiled for hours over a hot, relentless fire, until the back-country alchemy was complete and gallons of sap rendered a single quart of the sweet, viscous ambrosia that is pure maple syrup.

The sugarhouse was moldering in a swampy hollow when Banks bought the 60-acre parcel in Essex County in 1987. He rounded up a couple of buddies and a pickup truck and moved the simple wood-frame building to a dry spot 30 yards away. Banks salvaged its rustic muscularity and made a few improvements, while retaining the rough lumber of the interior walls from its syrup-making days.

It is a fitting writer's space for Banks, whose fierce and elemental fiction is the literary equivalent of the maple syrup process.

In his new novel, "The Darling" (HarperCollins; $25.95), his 14th book, Banks once more boils down the source material of history over the flame of his imagination. He creates a potent, mesmerizing elixir that blends the exotic locale of Africa and chimpanzee research with the radical 1960s American experience of a Weather Underground activist.

"The Darling" tells the story of Hannah Musgrave, who recalls her turbulent past from the safe remove of a middle age spent on a farm in Keene Valley in the Adirondacks -- a place and way of life Banks knows well and captures effortlessly.

Raised in wealth and privilege, Hannah grew disillusioned during the Vietnam War and developed into a political militant with a bomb-making bent. She became a fugitive from justice who fled to the West African country of Liberia. She married a Liberian, worked tirelessly to save a dwindling chimpanzee population and became embroiled in the political corruption and bloody civil war of that war-torn African nation, with its tangled connection to the United States.

Research

"I tend to pillage history," says Banks, whose last novel, "Cloudsplitter" (1998), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was a monumental reconstitution of the life of abolitionist John Brown and his martyred legacy in the Adirondacks. The author's use of historical materials reached a culmination in that novel, which consumed seven years of research and writing.

Banks feels now that he probably over-researched Brown's life and times and knew the terrain "like a scholar," which ended up hamstringing him as a writer of fiction.

Banks asked a friend, the novelist E.L. Doctorow, how much research went into "Ragtime" and his other acclaimed historical novels. "Just enough," Doctorow replied.

Banks is hoping he has struck the right balance in "The Darling," which, at 400 pages, is about half the length of "Cloudsplitter." The seed for the new novel was planted during his research on John Brown.

"I became fascinated with the creation of Liberia," Banks says of the republic, named for the African-Americans liberated from slavery who began returning to their homeland in 1816. After "Cloudsplitter," Banks took a hiatus from novels, finishing the 2000 short story collection "The Angel on the Roof" and writing several screenplays, but he couldn't shake Liberia from his imagination, or the themes of race, class, American imperialism and international politics.

"That has been an obsession of mine," says Banks, who addressed similar themes in "The Book of Jamaica" (1980) and "Continental Drift" (1985).

Perhaps the biggest stylistic risk Banks takes in "The Darling" is to tell the story entirely from Hannah's perspective. It's the first time his primary protagonist has been a woman.

"Hannah grew out of my own experiences (with) women I knew who were active in the movement in the '60s and '70s," says Banks, who helped organize a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when he was a student there in the mid-1960s.

"I wanted to revisit the role of women in the radical movement, because they always get short shrift," he says. "They're always treated as thwarted, neurotic, comic or simply as followers. They're never treated as having the same complexity as men were allowed."

Parallel obsession

His research struck upon a parallel obsession among women who devoted their lives to the protection of primates, such as Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. "They were white women who came from privileged backgrounds, and they sacrificed family, career and their own desires for the gorillas and chimps," Banks says. "Women in the movement were like that, too."

Although Banks typically employs rugged male narrators, he was not afraid to stretch in creating a woman as complex, contradictory and challenging as Hannah Musgrave.

"I was raised by an articulate mother. I've been married four times. I have four daughters who talk a lot. The women in my life are bright, articulate and expressive," Banks says. "I carry a lot of women's voices in my ears."

A bookshelf above his desk -- it's actually an old door propped up on metal stands and painted antique blue, a gift from his father-in-law -- is filled with dozens of books on 1960s radicalism, Liberia and chimpanzees. Banks also re-read Graham Greene in order to study the technique of a master of this fictional form.

"Nobody did this better than Greene, who took social issues and set them in exotic locales. But you never felt like you were reading a travelogue," Banks says. "I studied Greene's proportions. He was so good at balancing foreground character and background setting, and not letting the locale overpower the story."

Banks' research also included interviews with several former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in Liberia and a retired CIA officer who was assigned to Liberia in the '60s and '70s.

"The CIA guy told me some amazing stories that confirmed my worst suspicions of what the United States did in that country," Banks says. "We completely exploited Liberia during the Cold War, and essentially used their coast as our aircraft carrier in Africa."

Close to Liberia

Last summer, Banks tried to make a research foray into Liberia, which has been essentially closed to foreigners for years because of civil war.

"I was in Sierra Leone and was going to cross the border into Liberia, and everything just blew up," Banks says. "It was anarchy, and there were kids in the streets wielding Kalashnikovs. I had a chance to fly in by helicopter, but I thought it was a really dangerous and stupid idea and stayed out of there."

Banks is no stranger to Africa. He has traveled throughout Kenya and trekked in the Serengeti. On a wall across from his desk is a picture of himself on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania during a 60th birthday trip. He plans to climb Kilimanjaro again next year, for his 65th.

On this clear late September afternoon, with autumn's blush spreading over the hillside, Banks opens a bottle of Saranac Pale Ale and expounds on his love for the Adirondacks.

During breaks from writing, he walks a network of paths on the vast tract of state land that borders the Keene property. He's shadowed by a pair of border collies, Nan and Kili (Hannah Musgrave has border collies in the novel). Banks divides his time between Saratoga Springs and Keene, where he passes as a local among the 1,000 hardy year-rounders.

"A lot of people in town don't even know he's a famous writer," says Mary Burke, postmaster at the Keene Post Office. She's read his novels and they chat when he stops in. She describes him as "quiet and low-profile, just a regular guy."

But there's a hometown pride in the tiny Keene Public Library, which owns all his books, and among local readers who recognize locales in his novels -- such as the bar in "The Sweet Hereafter," patterned on Purdy's in Keene, aka Monty's Elm Tree Inn.

Adirondack roots

Banks may still be a newcomer after 17 years, but his wife, the poet Chase Twichell, can lay claim to deeper Adirondack roots. Her great-grandfather, the Rev. Joseph Twichell, a Hartford, Conn., minister and a close friend of Mark Twain, discovered Keene Valley in the 1870s, and her family has been coming here during summers ever since.

"Keene is a time warp up here, and reminds me of the New Hampshire I grew up in during the '40s and '50s," Banks says. "I've fallen in love with the Adirondacks and identify closely with the place. I feel accepted by the local folks."

Banks and Twichell both taught at Princeton University, and moved to Saratoga permanently after retiring from academia six years ago. She runs a small publishing venture, Ausable Press, from her workspace on a converted first-floor porch of the main house in Keene.

Even when Banks is hunkered down in Saratoga, he'll make the three-hour round trip to visit his mother, who lives at an assisted living center in Keene. He has a weekly ritual of taking his mom out to a restaurant for Sunday supper.

"OK, mom. OK, I've got somebody here. I'll call you back in a little while," he says, taking the second phone call from her in as many hours. In between, Banks took a call about the movie version of his 1996 novel "Rule of the Bone." Director Chris Noonan, an Australian best known for "Babe," has met with Banks, who's also producing, several times in Keene; they expect to finish casting this fall.

"I'd really love to have it shot here in the Adirondacks, and we tried," Banks says. But the movie will have a modest budget and, given the exchange rate, they can save money by shooting in Canada.

There may be another film opportunity down the road. Banks has just started work on his next novel, set in the Adirondacks at the height of the Great Depression.

"I've formed such scar tissue from the Depression and want to write about that period," Banks says. "I still find myself going around the house and turning off lights."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

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