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Let Us Now Praise Russell Banks


David Talbot

Let Us Now Praise Russell Banks. The novelist, who died of cancer at 82 on Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was a literary bright star. One of those talented authors who dared to write about working people of different backgrounds, Banks himself was a son of the working class; his father was a hard-drinking plumber, who sometimes beat him severely. He "hated" and "adored" him.

Banks's novels -- including Continental DriftAffliction and Rule of the Bone -- should be read by all those who care about our mythical American Dream. He explained its dark and resilient power as well as any American writer.

Reminded by obit writers of Cloudsplitter, Banks's monumental 1998 novel about radical abolitionist John Brown, I'm inspired to finally read the book which has been sitting on my shelf for nearly a quarter century. Years before novelist James McBride and then actor-producer Ethan Hawke dramatized Brown as a flawed hero in "The Good Lord Bird," Banks was examining the same subject matter.

I met Banks once, while I was editing Salon. He was a warm, friendly, polite man --- not squirrelly and remote like some well-known writers. He was the sort I used to go drinking with, though he knew the power of demon rum.

Let's hear it for Russell Banks -- he used his deep wisdom and empathy to write about class and race. About the big things you're not supposed to write about these days. Write what you know, they always tell you. Banks knew a lot.

David Talbot founded the online magazine Salon. He's the author of numerous books, including The Devil's Chessboard, Season of the Witch, Between Heaven and Hell, and most recently, with his sister Margaret, By the Light of Burning Dreams. He's been a friend to The Journal since its inception and serves on our board.