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Russell Banks Explores Class Structure in 'Reserve'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Author Russell Banks is best known for gritty stories like The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction — tales about disaffected blue-collar workers, much like the people who defined his childhood.

True to form, Banks says that when he started researching his new novel, The Reserve, he intended it to be another exploration of his parents' world — working-class people in small-town America. He wanted to understand the economic fears and anxieties they had passed down to him. "I would shut off the refrigerator light ... if I could," he says.

But along the way, Banks says, "I realized that I was equally fascinated, really for the first time in my life, by the old, patrician New England families ... who had cordoned off vast tracts" of wilderness in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where the author has lived for two decades.

The Reserve is a noir thriller, replete with a femme fatale who, Banks says, "is clearly going to end up screwing up some men's lives." Another noir element, he explains, is the "overriding and pervasive sense of darkness in this world, even for all its glamour and beauty."

After performing various odd jobs, including a stint as a plumber, Banks began publishing fiction in the 1970s. Since then, he has written 11 novels and several short story collections. Continental Drift, about the colliding worlds of a Haitian refugee and a displaced New Englander, was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer Prize. Other books include Cloudsplitter, his 1998 bestselling historical novel of abolitionist John Brown.

Speaking of the journey he took in writing The Reserve, Banks says that over the years and "almost against [his] will," he came to realize that the wealthy deserved his "sympathetic understanding" as much as the servants who work for them. "The rich are people, too, I guess," he jokes, "though perhaps not quite the same as you and I for the reasons that Hemingway famously explained to Fitzgerald." He adds, "They still have hearts that swell and break over love and loss."

This reading of The Reserve took place in January 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of NPR.org’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on NPR.org. She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.