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[469] The Sweet Hereafter – Russell Banks

” Many of the folks in Sam Dent have come out since the accident and claimed that they knew it was going to happen someday, oh yes, they just knew it: because of Dolores’s driving, which, to be fair, is not reckless but casual; or because of the condition of the bus itself, which Dolores serviced at home in her barn, and as a consequence it did not get the same supervision by me as the other school buses got; or because of that downhill stretch of road and the fact that there’s almost no shoulder to it on either side of the guardrail; . . . It’s a way of living with tragedy, I guess, to claim after it happens that you saw it coming, as if somehow you had already made the necessary adjustments beforehand. ” (Part II: Billy Ansel, p.38)

The Sweet Hereafter is a novel of a small town in America that has to overcome a devastating tragedy. Written from the perspective of four completely different narrators who each knows things the others don’t, who struggle with the aftermath of a horrific school bus accident, Banks’ prose infuses into their voices a fluidity that aches with a sharp reality and authenticity. There is Dolores Driscoll, the once tough but perpetually sanguine driver who is now consumed by guilt. A native who has boasted a twenty-year safety record, loved by the whole town, she plunks herself down in the exact center of the town’s grief and rage, instead of stashing her pain and guilt where they don’t have to look at it. She has simply placed herself in the scales of their judgment.

The only way I could go on living was to believe that I was not living. I can’t explain it; I can only tell you how it felt. I think it felt that way for a lot of people in town. Death permanently entered our lives with that accident . . . So for us, it was as if we, too, had died when the bus went over the embankment and tumbled down into the water-filled sandpit, and now we were lodged temporarily in a kind of purgatory, waiting to be moved to wherever the other dead ones had gone. (Part II: Billy Ansel, p.72-73)

Another voice is Billy Ansel, the widower who witnesses the accident from his truck. With the death of his twin son and daughter, he becomes grief-stricken and shuts out any possibility of redemption, offered in the form of a personal injury lawyer who, on a personal vendetta to enforce social moral responsibility, contrives to unite victims’ families to file negligence law suit against the state, the town highway department, and even the rescue squad. Banks’ prose is most despondent but beautiful through Billy’s voice, who has suffered an irretrievable loss, has discovered that he is inconsolable, and thus has removed himself from normal human contact, including Risa Walker, with whom he has had an affair, and who has lost her son in the accident.

All over town there were empty houses and trailers for sale that last winter had been homes with families in them. A town needs its children, just as much and in the same ways as family does. It comes undone without them, turns a community into a windblown scattering of isolated individuals. (Part V: Dolores Driscoll, p.236)

The lawyer’s most crucial witness is Nicole Burnell, a former cheerleader now paralyzed by the accident. She is strongly opposed to the law suit and despises her parents of being hounded by greed and the desire for attention. She is responsible for the surprising turnout of the book, which is although a resolution but not a closure to the wound from the trauma. Russell Banks is a masterful writer. This is the first novel of his that I I read. His style is calm and unadorned, which perfectly fits the atmosphere of the story. He adroitly guides his reader through the shattered lives of the people of Sam Dent, who cope with the tragedy with every stand: from guilt, to mourning, to denial, to anger, to helplessness, and to blame-shifting. The Sweet Hereafter investigates the communities that arise when anger and blame are the primary means of social currency. By the end of the book we find ourselves within questions much larger than the individual lives involved, because it exposes how our morality can be eaten away by our desire to fulfill our needs, even if the desire is more emotional than truthful.

257 pp. Harper Perennial Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. This is my favorite russell Banks novel, but man, oh man is it ever bleak.

    • It’s bleak but not completely hopeless. I like how the whole town is redeemed at the end just because one person has common sense.

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