May 24, 2017
The author’s latest work, A Permanent Member of the Family
“It’s a little risky reading in Miami,” Russell Banks says wryly about his appearance this month at the Miami Book Fair International. “If you’ve made a mistake by putting a street where it shouldn’t be, there’s always somebody in the audience who’s delighted to call you out on it. I have to be careful to get it right.” That attention to detail—not only in his award-winning fiction’s geography, but also in its emotional nuances—has helped establish the 73-year-old Banks as one of America’s finest living novelists, with a string of masterworks to his name, beginning with his breakthrough, 1985’s South Florida-focused Continental Drift. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott saluted his later novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter as “close to perfect”; the 2011 Lost Memory of Skin drew a fresh round of raves and returned Banks’s attention to Miami, using the notorious encampment of (since-evicted) homeless sex offenders underneath the Julia Tuttle causeway as a sardonic launching pad.
The hidden corners of South Florida remain in the fore throughout Banks’s new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family—many sparked by snippets of overheard conversation or fleeting sights, whether on Banks’s daily walk from his winter home on South Beach to his writing office off Lincoln Road (“I go over there in the mornings as if I was going to a real job”) or soaking up some color, just up I-95 at the bar inside Hollywood’s Seminole Hard Rock Casino. However, there’s little in the way of glitz or glamour in Banks’s depictions. His interest is in characters teetering over Miami’s economic fault lines, striving to leap away—or at least maintain their balance.
“I’m conscious of class anywhere I am, but in Miami it’s inescapable,” he says. “It’s a city of immigrants, and it’s a city that’s racially conflicted and deeply divided. It isn’t like we’re all sitting around Duluth, Minnesota.” Given that these same themes powered Tom Wolfe’s 2012 novel Back to Blood, one wonders if Banks felt competitive. “I started it, and then I got sort of bored with it and let it go,” Banks says dismissively of Wolfe’s opus. “It often feels like he paid a research assistant to go out and get information. It doesn’t feel lived.” Which Banks insists is essential when portraying a city’s social fabric.
“I started coming to Miami in 1958 when I was an 18-year-old dropout,” he explains, recalling a hitch-hiking trip that saw him ditch a full scholarship to New York’s Colgate University for an attempt to join up with Fidel Castro’s guerilla army in the Cuban countryside. “Castro in those years was being portrayed on the cover of Life magazine as a Robin Hood-type figure…. For a romantic kid like myself from New England, identifying with the underdog, this was something I thought I should do. I’d read [Jack] Kerouac’s On the Road; the Beats were role models in some ways for me. So I thought, Yeah, they need me down there!”
Banks chuckles at the memory—and considers himself lucky he never got any farther south than Islamorada: “I’d either be imprisoned or running a bar in Old Havana,” he quips. But the odd jobs he picked up in a South Beach hotel sparked an ongoing infatuation with both Miami’s physical terrain and its culture clashes. “I’ve been coming back ever since—half a century practically,” Banks enthuses. “So it’s a place I’ve really come to love and feel is mine. I feel territorial about it, and I think that helps as a writer. If you can feel like you can ‘wear’ the city, like it’s yours, the work will reflect that.” E-mail: [email protected]
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BILL KEARNEY