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Russell Banks, Praised Author of ‘cloud splitter,’ Dies at 82

Russell Banks, an award-winning novelist who set “Affliction” and “The Sweet Hereafter” in the frigid, rural communities of his native Northeast and envisioned the hopes and downfalls of everyone from current blue-collar workers to radical abolitionist John Brown, has died. 82.

His editor, Dan Halpern, told The Associated Press that Princeton University professor emeritus Banks died Saturday. Halpern reported Banks’ cancer treatment. The New York Times reported Banks died at home in Saratoga Springs.

Joyce Carol Oates tweeted that Banks died quietly at home. Oates stated he liked Russell’s talent and generosity. “’Cloudsplitter’ was his masterwork, but all his work is exceptional.” Banks, a self-proclaimed heir of 19th-century writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

He was a plumber’s son who wrote about working-class families and those who perished trying to escape, caught up in a “kind of lunacy” that the past may be wiped, and those like himself who survived and asked, “Why me, Lord?”

Banks was a Northern Puritan who resided for part of the year in Florida and Jamaica. Snow fell regularly in his writing, whether on the upstate New York village destroyed by a bus disaster in “The Sweet Hereafter” or on the desperate, divorced New Hampshire policeman undone by his paranoid thoughts in “Affliction.”

The New York State Writers Institute’s director, Paul Grondahl, called Banks a “close buddy” of author William Kennedy. “The New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany is very sorry at the death of our longtime friend and collaborator, Russell Banks,” Grondahl stated. “He was a great American novelist who enlivened Writers Institute’s seminars numerous times.”

He added Banks was selected New York State Author by the Writers Institute in 2004 and participated in the Albany Book Fest, Albany Film Festival, and other literary programs on Albany stages. “Nobody represented the hard-scrabble working-class existence as Russell Banks did in his novels,” Grondahl added. “He accomplished it like no other writer.”

In 1985’s “Continental Drift,” oil burner repairman Bob Dubois escapes New Hampshire and joins his wealthy brother in Florida, only to discover his brother’s existence is as empty as his own. Bob forgave his brother’s swagger and brag because he knew they were empty. “But he had never dreamed it would come to this, to nothing,” Banks wrote.

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His most ambitious novel, “Cloudsplitter,” was 750 pages about John Brown and his unlikely fight to end slavery. The narrative predates Banks, but the idea was close to home. In 1998, Banks told the AP that Brown “becomes a type of ghostly presence” near his North Elba, New York, home.

“Cloudsplitter” summons Hawthorne and other early influences to preface Banks’ present compositions. John Brown was a tormented Old World man who burned like a revivalist preacher to free the slaves and punish the enslavers, according to his son Owen Brown.

“I was a boy; I was horrified by my father’s face,” Banks’ narrator says. “I recall father looking straight into our eyes, searing us, as he told us to hear him immediately. He resolved to abandon pride and vanity. Leaving here, he would fight slavery. He said, “The time has come, and I want to join it in full roar.”

Banks was a Pulitzer finalist for “Cloudsplitter” in 1999 and “Continental Drift” 13 years earlier. “Cloudsplitter” earned him the Anisfeld-Wolf Book Award and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the late 1990s, Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and Paul Schrader’s “Affliction,” starring James Coburn, were made into acclaimed films. In the 2021 novel “Foregone,” an American filmmaker who escaped to Canada during the Vietnam War reflects back on his reckless childhood, a background Banks recognized.

His father, Earl Banks, was an alcoholic who abused him as a child and left him with a permanently injured left eye. Russell was brilliant enough to be called a “Teacher” in high school and receive a full scholarship from Colgate University.

He was a 1960s optimist who read Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” like a Bible. He left Colgate to join Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army in Cuba, ending in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was married twice by his early 20s (and had four children), had several bar fights, wrote poetry so horrible he later wished he had burnt it, worked with his father as a plumber in New Hampshire, and returned to school at UNC Chapel Hill.

He released his debut novel, “Family Life,” and a story collection, “Searching for Survivors,” in his mid-30s. At 50, he was a successful author and married to poet Chase Twichell. In an interview with Ploughshares’ Winter 1993-94 edition, he said, “Over the years, I think that I’ve been able to make my fury coherent to myself, and that’s helped me to become more lucid as a human being, as a writer, as — I hope — a husband, parent, and friend.

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