By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
"Nothing" is the force
That renovates the World—
For this installment, I thought I would cover a writer who I have always liked because he unflinchingly covers the heavy issues of life, such as how people deal with catastrophe. It happens to all people, unless you're Mitt Romney (and I am not too sure Romney is more than semi-human). You see, I think that part of what makes us human is how we deal with the awfulness that happens in life, and how that paradoxically binds us togther - ideally - and yet also makes us fly apart.
It also seems to me appropriate in making sense of what happened in Aurora, which although I did not know anyone who was wounded or killed, I know Aurora pretty well, and lived there for some pretty formative years in my life. I know exactly in what part of town the movie theater was located in (it is actually close to where my girlfriend lived) and also where the assailant's booby-trapped apartment was; It is just around the corner from a site that used to be occupied by an Army Medical Center, and is now used by the University of Colorado. I used to live around there. It was a pretty nice place to live. Never thought I'd see it associated with this kind of horror. . .
Which brings us to the author I want to cover tonight. Someone who has long written about just what people confront when it is their family member or loved one that dies in a national tragedy. And what the burden of survivorship really is.
For those who do not know, let me introduce you to Russell Banks, and the Sweet Hereafter
Born in Massachusetts in 1940, Russell Banks is a writer with a profound sense of empathy and a strong moral compass. As well as a sense of adventure; abandoned by an alcoholic abusive father at 12 he got admission into Colgate University but dropped out after 8 weeks; he wanted to go to Cuba and joined Castro's revolutionaries. Unfortunately (or fortunately) for him by the time he got to Florida, Castro had entered Havana and didn't really need disaffected American youth to join him. Banks worked at a series of jobs and then entered the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (lovely, highly cultured town, by the way), graduated and took teaching positions in his native New England. He also seriously embarked on writing, eventually producing award winning short story collections, poems, and fabulous novels, such as Continental Drift Cloudsplitter and most recently Lost Memory of Skin which despite its flaws deals straightforwardly with a dark corner of America most of us prefer would just not exist. It occurs to me that we wish the same for the sort of tragic events that occur as well, the ones that make us uncomfortable, because they seem so pointless.
In fact, I think I'll embed a video of the author, and let you get a feel for the artist he is:
His characters tend to be working class stiffs not unlike himself; lost souls with a sort of dignity and pathos, even if most of the time they are not in control of their own destiny; things happen to them more than they make things happen. While I do not think dignity in the face of adversity - at least on the individual level - is Banks' goal, there is no denying that Banks is rarely or never exploitative; his characters are complex, drawn with nuance, not unlike real life, I suppose.
Which brings us to 'The Sweet Hereafter', the novel that I only got around to reading last year, and then only after seeing The movie of the same name. The movie is fabulous by the way - and quite faithful to the spirit of the novel. In some way it is perhaps better to watch this haunting film first and get the story and meaning clearly. But do read the novel. The title reflects what comes after life, not just the empty faith that we will go to some sort of elysium, but as a realm where the senseless will make sense. It is from a verse that I think Mr. Banks knows well:
Lord, what thou doest noo, an' why,
We maunna seek to ken;
But sune the sweet hereafter comes,
An' thou wilt tell us then.
Mary Lee Demarest, "The Pathway o' the Sea (1885)
The central event of the novel is based on a real life event the author read about: The crash of a school bus that killed a number of children. He transposed the event to a setting he knew better - rural upstate New York - and tells the story through the voice of four people involved in the crash: The Bus Driver, The Widower whose two children were on the bus and die in it, the Lawyer who hears about the crash and shows up in the small town to get the townspeople to launch a class-action lawsuit against the county and the bus manufacturer, and one of the children on the bus who survives, an eighth grader whom the crash leaves permanently paralyzed. Each person gets roughly the same amount of space to tell the story from their own viewpoint, and introduce some of the minor characters that contribute to the tale; the novel ends with a brief sad coda from the Bus Driver who is blamed for the tragedy.
We first hear from the Bus Driver, Dolores Driscoll, a character as melancholy as her name. She is a long term inhabitant of Sam Dent, which is the rural upstate New York town where this happens. She has been driving the schoolchildren for years in a variety of vehicles and takes pride on her reliability and the way she with a minimum of drama gets the kiddies to school on time every day. Like every character in the novel, she already has some scars: hers is the husband she cares for whom she idolizes; she has to become his full time caretaker after a stroke has left him largely paralyzed and incoherent. But she talks and listens to him and does her job in a very methodical way. Which is why the accident is so jarring, so unexpected, coming after her long discourse about the town and the mostly poor people that inhabit it:
"Wendell was a pleasantly withdrawn sort of man who seemed to have given up on life, but Risa, I knew, still had dreams. In warm weather, she'd be out there roofing the motel or repainting the signs, while Wendell stayed inside and watched baseball on TV. They had a lot of financial problems - the motel had about a dozen units and was old and in shabby condition; they had bought it in a foreclosure sale eight or ten years before, and I don't think they'd put up the 'No Vacancy' sign once in that time (Sam Dent is one of those towns that's on the way to somewhere else, and people get this far, they usually keep going.) Also I think the Walker's marriage was shaky. Judging from what had happened to them after the accident, it was probably just that motel and their love for the boy, Sean, that had bound themI'll get to the theme that poor Dolores introduces later, but for now I'll say that Sean is one of the children that die, and his parents become one of the chief plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Also that Banks has a feel for rural upstate New York that I find every bit as convincing as the one Stephen King has - and which I have written about - for rural Maine.
Anyway, we next hear from Billy Ansel, the closest thing to a hero in the novel. Billy is a Vietnam vet who runs a garage in which he hires other Vietnam vets and kind of rehabilitates them. He's had some substance issues himself. At the time of the Accident, Billy is following the bus from behind on his way to work; he is watching his children through the rear view window of the bus. Billy dotes on his children who he is raising himself; he has had to be a single parent since his beloved wife died of cancer four years earlier.
And Dolores is right; Wendell and Risa's marriage is indeed shaky, because Billy is having an affair with her; he frankly tells us that when the accident occurs he was thinking about fucking her. But it is a very unerotic and unromantic affair, much more driven by shared need than shared affection; they often said they loved each other. . .
'But it was a lie and I think we both knew it. I surely did. I still loved my wife Lydia, and I don't think Risa loved anyone except her son, Sean. Nevertheless we were both lonely and both burdened by strong sexual natures. But neither of us had the ability to say that to the other in a way that would not be hurtful. So, instead, we said "I Love You" and let it go at that. I have the benefot of hindsight now, of course, and maybe I half believed the tender words I whispered in her ear after we had made love and I was still inside and surrounding her, covering her body with mine in the darkness of the motel room
The character of Billy Ansel describes very precisely what the nature of grief is, at least to someone like him, and, in one of the novel's major themes the inability to find any comfort or meaning in what happened to him, his wife and his children
"...for us, it was as if we, too had died when the bus went over the embankment and tumbled down into the frozen water-filled sandpit, and now we were lodged in a kind of purgatory, waiting to be moved to wherever the dead ones had gone.And he drinks, more as the story progresses. People think that one drinks to dull the pain, but Banks has his character say something I know too well, that you drink to feel something, because there are times that what happens becomes so awful you can't feel anything at all.
We didn't have available to us the various means that many of our neighbors and relatives had for easing the blow. At least I didn't. The Christians talk about God's will and all - that only made me angry, although I suppose I am glad that they were able to comfort themselves with such talk. But I could not bring myself to attend any of the memorial services that the various churches in Sam Dent and the neighboring towns invited me to. It was enough to have to listen to Reverend Dreiser at the twin's funeral. He wanted us all to believe that God was like a father who had taken our children for himself. Some father.
The only father I had known was the one who had abandoned his children to others
And so, with the futility of finding any meaning or higher purpose in such crushing grief, it is not surprising that people do something else. They look for someone or something to blame. That this quest is ultimately as futile as the quest for meaning is the great theme of the novel. But it does introduce us to the third voice: That of the Lawyer, Mitchell Stephens, Esquire
I suppose we have all known lawyers like this one; 'ambulance chasers' in the popular parlance. Some of the inhabitants of Sam Dent think that is exactly what he is. But that is way to facile and absolutely not how he sees himself. He sees himself more of an avenging angel, and frankly admits that his motive is anger. He doesn't so much care about the monetary award; he cares about the head he is going to hang on his office wall. The money is secondary. In a way he represents the anger that people feel when something bad happens to them (and comments about the inferences Russell Banks draws about personal injury lawyers should be addressed to him, not me).
And we also learn a reason for that anger, the cross that Mitchell Stephens, esquire has himself to bear: his daughter is an addict. A lying, longstanding, manipulating, using addict who lives off her enabling dad's money, no matter how many rehabs and detoxes and farm retreats he sends her to. And therein lies the second of the three great themes that make the novel great: The unbearable burden that the dead and the needy lay on us, the survivors. It is a burden of grief, a burden of caring, sometimes without surcease; mercilessly enough Banks has his daughter get diagnosed with AIDS while her dad is up in rural upstate New York fighting the case. Keep in mind, those who weren't alive or aware in the late eighties and early nineties: AIDS was a death sentence, no matter how healthy or young or attractive you were when you got it.
So let me quote a little more about the burden of caring: The lawyer relates an incident where he was vacationing in a remote spot up north and his daughter got bit by a spider. And he had to race her to the hospital, keeping her calm, singing her nursery songs, with a sharp knife in his hands. Because he would have to use it to get an emergency tracheostomy in her if her throat closed up on the drive down to the hospital:
"In the case of the drive to Elizabeth City. . it turned out that I did not have to go as far as I was prepared to go. But this was only because I was prepared to go all the way. I was at peace with myself and the world, and consequently Zoe, too, stayed calm and placid, her tiny heart beating slowly, normally, even after I had run out of songs...It should not be a surprise that the lawsuit brings neither peace nor happiness not unity of purpose to the inhabitants of this small town (this was what the outcome was in the real life case in Texas, by the way). Despite Mitchell Stephen's valiant attempts to unify the town behind the suit, it just divides them, like grief itself often does. Billy Ansel refuses to participate. So does Dolores Driscoll, on the gabbled and quite likely misinterpreted advice of her stroked out husband. Indeed it turns out the lawsuit hangs on the fourth voice that brings things to a close: the survivor of the accident, a junior high student named Nichole Burnell. Her burden that she carries, before the crash is that her father is sexually abusing her (So as not to embed triggers in this diary I will avoid quoting her on this). After the crash, she is permanently paralysed, so now her parents will have to assume the burden. Her father literally now has to carry her to and from the court on which the lawsuit takes place. And afterward, in which she takes revenge in her own way on her father who had supported the lawsuit and needed the money to help him take care of his now crippled daughter, there is in a sad way, an apology and an absolution of sorts.
Now in my dreams of her, and I dream of her frequently, Zoe is still that child in my lap, trusting me utterly, even though I am the man who secretly held in his hand the knife that he had decided to use to cut into her throat, and thus I am in no way the man she sees smiling down at her, singing ditties and rondelets and telling stories of owls and pussycats
But, as I indicated, the novel has a coda, and we hear from poor Dolores again, who is now more or less universally blamed for causing the crash. Which gets us into the last theme: the way she sacrifices herself for her community by taking the blame for the crash and moving away permanently. It does not heal the community; there is no healing; Billy and Risa stop seeing each other and he turns into a drunk, Risa and Wendell divorce, and the poverty and despair get worse as there will now be no money. But it unites the town, who can now agree on the blame and the cause, for all the good it does them. As Banks himself said, in an interview:
I am interested in the whole question of the possibility of heroism, especially in a secular age and especially in a democratic society. There are two things that are ongoing perplexities for me: First, is there such a thing as wisdom? And second, is there such a thing as heroism? I want there to be both, but I am not sure that I believe they exist as human potential anymore. At least, I am not sure in what terms they are available. Those are the truths I am trying to find out—the truth about wisdom and the truth about heroism. That quest takes different forms. For example, in The Sweet Hereafter I was interested in whether you could locate heroism in a community rather than in a single individual—whether some of the conventional notions about the characteristics of heroism could be distributed across a broader spectrum. The four main individuals in the story are unable to resolve the contradictions of their experience—the contradictions inherent in loving somebody and knowing that we all die soon and there is no afterlife—and they do not behave heroically as individuals. But as a community they are able to resolve those contradictions; they do it by means of public ritual in which they simultaneously appoint Dolores, the school-bus driver, as the scapegoat and forgive her for the school-bus accident that killed their children, which their ragtag American religions and their legal systems couldn’t do for them[emphasis mine]
And that, fellow Kossacks, is where this ties into the shooting in Aurora, for me, and the epigram which I started this diary. It is the same one that starts 'The Sweet Hereafter'. Do you see the parallels? Note how quickly and with what snide and self-righteous rhetoric so many try to place the blame on something besides the troubled young psychotic who did it. There is no ultimate meaning in horrible tragic events like mass shootings or school bus crashes that kill a community's children. There is only the 'hindered words' and ultimately 'nothings' of which the poet speaks. But it is, ultimately this 'Nothing' that changes us, changes those around us, and maybe, with luck can be the start to renovating our world.