The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

I loved this book.

So much so that I expect to be reading more books by Russell Banks.  I think he has a new one out.

I don’t know how nor why Russell Banks has avoided me up till now. I think there may have been some negative association with best seller status that kept me away.  For awhile, this was the book everyone was reading, so I avoided it.  Alright, I’ll admit it, that’s just plain snobbery on my part.  But somehow I stumbled across a used copy on my recent trip to Chicago, one at a very low price I imagine, and finally gave him a go.

I’m pleased to say The Sweet Hereafter is terrific.

The story concerns the members of a small town in upstate New York–very upstate–nearly in Canada–who are all dealing with the aftermath of a terrible accident.  One winter day, the local school bus crashed off the road into an old quarry pond leaving 14 of the young passengers drowned.  The families and the survivors are the subject of the story rather than the accident itself.  While we do get conflicting views of the how the crash happened and who is to blame, that’s really a McGuffin, a device to lead the reader into the main subject of the story which is how a community can begin to deal with catastrophic loss and the ways loss can force things into the light that have been kept hidden for years.

This sounds like a tremendously heavy book, but The Sweet Hereafter was not the colossal downer you might be expecting. Nor was there some sort of trite piece of wisdom gained nor a triumph of the spirit.  Well, maybe a little triumph of the spirit towards the very end.

One thing that makes the book work so well is that each of the five sections is told by one of four narrators: the bus driver who opens and closes the book; a lawyer who arrives soon after the accident intending to file a class action lawsuit; a young teenage girl who survived the accident but ended up paralyzed from it; and the widowed father of two girls who did not survive the crash.

The story becomes a kind of Roshamon, where no one is really free of outside motivations, no one is truly pure.  Everyone has reasons why they do what they do which are not quite trying to do the right thing.

That may not be fair either.  The lawyer really is a good lawyer.  He wants to sue but not simply to make money for himself, though he surely will and he certainly must.  Everyone has to make a living. But this lawyer really wants to make sure whoever caused the accident, be they a negligent school district or an under-funded highway system, cannot do further harm.  I think he’s good, overall.

The bus driver really does want to do what is best for the community, though I’m not sure what she does is really the best thing.  Her motivations are pure at least.  The grieving father fights against the lawsuit which I think was a mistake but his motivations are basically good.  The teenage girl, though, I’m not so sure about her.

What she does is what shocked me.

There’s no traditional suspense in The Sweet Hereafter. To get that I think Mr. Banks would have had to give us more courtroom drama or maybe a play-by-play of the accident as it happened instead of the weeks later account we get.  But the book is suspenseful.  I wanted to know how things would turn out on a plot level and on a character lever.  I cared about these four narrators and I wanted to find out what would happen story wise.

The twist, when it came, made sense, felt natural, was clearly what those involved would have done, but it struck me viserally, like a bolt from the blue.  As much as any much more violent or shocking events would have.

And, I really admired the writing. Mr. Banks creates memorable characters, different from each other but each fully formed people.  Any one of the four would have been strong enough to carry the entire book on their own.  Here’s Delores Driscoll, the bus driver, at the end of the book.  Don’t worry this passage doesn’t spoil the plot at all.

Over to my left, the East Branch of the Ausable ran through the darkness, and a dark spruce woods hove up on my right.  At the edge of the road, low and close to the ground, first on one side, and then on the other, I began to see the eyes of animals suddenly flash and glitter as I passed along the way, reflecting my headlights back at me and then as quickly flaring out.  For a brief second, though, their eyes were pure white and flat, like dry, coldly glowing disks, and it was as if the animals had all come to the edge of the forest, and there by the side of the road they had waited and watched for me, until I had passed them by and the safe familiar darkness had returned.

That works so well for Delores, a bus drive who may have swerved to avoid a dog.  It’s also a solid metaphor for the entire book.  This short volume provides a brief flash of light on its characters, enough to force them to stare back wide-eyed and still, maybe a little afraid of what the light may reveal or bring.  Once the light passes they are left in a darkness they have long found safe and familiar.  If we don’t like what the light reveals, the darkness is preferable.

That’s what The Sweet Hereafter is really about, I suppose. The way a tragedy can force people to face things they have long kept hidden about themselves and about each other.

I’m keeping this one.  It’s worth a reread.

6 thoughts on “The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks

  1. James, try his Continental Drift or Affliction, too. And his short stories are really good. I have a collection of those called The Angel on the Roof that I dip into on a regular basis. The Sweet Hereafter, though, is still one of my favorites of his. I’ve seen him at a couple of book festivals and highly recommend him as a great speaker and presenter if you ever get the chance to see him in person.

    1. I will be looking for more. Thanks for the recommendations. You know, I have heard of both these titles in the past. That question of why I’ve not read him before keeps coming back to me.

  2. Yes, not that it always matters, but I can confirm that not only is he an excellent writer but a generally great guy to meet in person. I was lucky enough to introduce him at a bookstore event and got to chat with him about all kinds of fun stuff, including his toy school bus collection and the tooth-pulling scene in Affliction. Oh and an anecdote about white water rafting with Michael Ondaatje that I can’t remember exactly but was funny.

    He would not only not be offended that you waited to read this book but would probably actively encourage it. He himself has decided that he doesn’t want to read anything that isn’t at least five years old to avoid some of the issues you mention. It also keeps him from having to “blurb” things.

    1. There is a serious case to be made for only reading dead authors who have already stood the test of time, isn’t there. It’s a theme in Murakami’s Norwiegian Wood. I will have to keep an eye out for personal appearances, too, I guess.

  3. This completely escaped my attention but it does sound worth picking it up. Like you I am guilty of deliberately avoiding books that I think are being hyped (like The Girls at the moment).

    1. Sometimes I avoid the hype, sometimes I join right in. I think avoiding the hype is just about the same as joining in, to be honest. They can be two sides of the same coin.

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