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The Darling
The Darling
Russell Banks
Ecco, 2004
400 pp., 25.95

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John Utz

Missing Persons

A novel set against Liberia's brutal civil war

Over the past four decades, Russell Banks has crafted a formidable body of work. His novels are regularly nominated for major prizes, and his 1998 magnum opus, Cloudsplitter, was a finalist for the Pulitzer. He has received Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is the State Author of New York from 2004 to 2006.

And yet, Banks hasn't achieved celebrity commensurate with his gifts. He taught creative writing at Princeton for many years but doesn't share the instant recognition enjoyed by his colleagues there, Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. Indeed, he may be best known for the critically acclaimed films based on his novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction.

Given the profound moral depths of his fiction, Banks deserves a wider audience. He is an unapologetic realist who has movingly portrayed the failures of modern American life: addiction, abuse, infidelity, racism, and economic hardship, as well as the violence such failures often provoke. His work has focused predominantly on the working poor of New England, among whom he grew up and about whom he insists on being neither sentimental nor sensational. He doesn't shy from abstract questions of right and wrong, but he addresses them with a subtle hand, avoiding the temptation to grow strident or pedantic.

Key to this presentation is his ability to elicit from readers an emotional investment in the lives of people who are not terribly sympathetic. In Affliction, for example, the protagonist is a man few of us would want to spend time with in the real world. Hot-tempered, impulsive, driven by a sense of being wronged by his father, his ex-wife, his community, Wade Whitehouse blindly attempts to set things right by force. Wade is at once frightening and comprehensible, a dangerous stranger and an all-too-familiar figure, as close as the mirror on the wall. We cry out in disappointment as his poor decisions mount and spin out of control. Banks does not recount his story with indifference or voyeuristic satisfaction. Rather, he leaves his readers with a clear sense of tragedy, set against an implied backdrop of profound moral depth.

In Cloudsplitter, Banks tells the story of the radical abolitionist John Brown from the perspective of Brown's son, Owen. Though a historical novel, Cloudsplitter is driven by the same sort of conflicts that drive Banks' stories of contemporary life—here, above all, the difficult relation between abusive fathers and their sons, as well as racial injustice and the use of violence to correct it. Through the eyes of Owen Brown, we are brought close to his father, a man who zealously embraced his divine calling to liberate slaves and expected his family unquestioningly to do the same. In the end, this zeal led the Browns to take up arms and brutally slay those who supported slavery. One of the central triumphs of this novel is that Banks retains John Brown's mystical fanaticism while making us as eager as Owen to understand him.

Banks' latest novel, The Darling, takes us to Liberia, a republic that originated through the efforts of the American Colonization Society, which began to settle freed American slaves there in 1822. Since then the United States has helped the country battle its fiscal and political troubles with varying degrees of business investment, financial aid, and clandestine interference.

The descendants of the original freedmen, called Americo-Liberians, maintained political dominance over native Africans from the late 19th century until 1980, when the country experienced its first military coup, at the hands of Samuel Doe. The next, led by Charles Taylor in 1989, plunged Liberia into years of inter-tribal conflict marked by increasingly horrific violence and intimidation. Boys were recruited into competing armies, and whole villages of women and children were systematically raped, tortured, and mutilated. The fighting continued until August of 2003, when Taylor was forced into exile; he has since been indicted for war crimes associated with rebels he aided in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Given Banks' ongoing concern with the corrosive influences of racism and violence, as well as his historical interest in the lasting legacy of the American slave trade, his new work bid to be an exacting treatment of this complex and troubling history. Could he tell the story of Liberia's horrific civil war honestly, while still risking a sympathetic portrayal of the guilty parties? Could we ever come to comprehend the motivations behind such atrocities as rape, torture, tribal extermination, and even cannibalism?

Sadly, Banks chose not to tackle this formidable challenge head-on. Instead, he leads us into Liberia through the experiences of Hannah Musgrave, an American child of privilege who becomes a member of the Weather Underground during the Sixties. Like John Brown before her, Hannah is a righteous revolutionary, willing to take up arms in order to fight for social justice. She lands on the fbi's most wanted list and spends a decade living underground before fleeing to Africa when her anonymity is compromised.

Hannah intimates early on that she will lose her Liberian husband and three sons to the violence that sweeps through her adopted homeland, but in order to narrate these events, she must first interpret the convoluted motivations and actions that led her to Liberia in the first place. And the key word here is interpret, for The Darling is a novel dominated by exposition rather than dramatization; long sections of the novel consist solely of Hannah's musings, uninterrupted by action or dialogue. Though Cloudsplitter sprawls over hundreds of pages and recounts events that take decades to unfold, it never lags, because it has a clear sense of forward momentum and a strong narrative voice. By contrast, The Darling makes us feel less that we are moving ineluctably toward the disaster of Charles Taylor's bloody coup than that the narrator is avoiding it in order to focus on herself.

Most disappointingly, Banks fails to dramatize relations between Hannah and her family. This makes her loss less significant to us, but more troublingly, we never come to know and understand her husband and sons, who are then consumed by the violence of Charles Taylor's revolution. Through the horrors of that conflict, Hannah's three sons are transformed into conscienceless soldiers who take the names Fly, Demonology, and Worse-than-Death. But the transformation has little purchase on us because we have hardly gotten to know the boys they once were.

The strange thing about Hannah Musgrove is that she remains at a distance. Many of her actions are inexplicable. This radical revolutionary, who took up arms against her own government and spurned male lovers within "the movement" for their unenlightened sexual politics, falls instantly for her eventual Liberian husband, Woodrow Sundiata. Neither her initial interest in nor subsequent relationship with Woodrow is ever fleshed out.

This disconnect is exacerbated by a strange narrative decision by Banks: the idealistic will that drives Hannah to Liberia is quickly dissipated in the drudgery of marriage and motherhood. Still needing a focus for her energies, she is inspired to found a refuge for chimpanzees, who are hunted for meat as well as captured for medical experimentation, entertainment, and, of course, zoological study. Here is a cause that receives all of Hannah's passion and commitment. Indeed, she admits at the outset of the novel that it is on behalf of these rescued chimps (her "dreamers"), whom she abandoned, that she feels the most guilt. By comparison, this is how Hannah explains her rootless wandering, her inability to form deep connections, even with her own children: "It's why I was able to leave them with such ease and so little regret. Simply, they weren't as real to me as I was to myself."

Banks is making a point about the limits of empathy and the narcissism that can undermine well-meaning efforts to act on another's behalf. The problem is that we are left unable to connect with either Hannah or the Liberians. In the end, the novel, like its narrator, is more focused on the hubris of radical idealism than on the real conditions that motivate it. The challenge of understanding the atrocities of Liberia's civil war is so daunting that one can almost forgive Banks for sidestepping it. But given what we know of his commitments and his talents, we are left yearning for the book that might have been.

John Utz teaches literture and writing at Duke Divinity School.

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