Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Report

Russell Banks

I got into an argument not too long ago on a third date with a guy. (I mention the number of dates because the third was a new personal best. Usually I start being annoyingly opinionated right away.) As literary arguments went, it was fairly civil - the topic being who, in recent reading memory can write the best run-on sentences.

Obviously, I am nominating Russell Banks - who I think trumps his Thomas Mann. Simply for the fact that Banks' run-on sentences send you gliding through a dreamy earthy passage as you tear through the life and times of John Brown and suddenly you realize you have ripped through almost 800 pages in under a week of bedtime readings and find yourself missing the ride.

I think Mann loses because I start getting confused after about ten words of his run-on sentences, and I can only thank God that I am not German, which I suspect might make reading him all the more painful - what with the uber long words and all.

Anyway, despite his issues with commas, Banks has written no less than an eyeopening and lush look at John Brown, what made him tick, his fallacies, his strengths, and of course raises the ultimate question : why did that guy keep having all those babies? Like, give a bitch a break.

Okay, no. The bigger question being: "martyr of the Republic or Nat Turner?" Interestingly, I read The Confessions of Nat Turner some time back, and I'm glad that I now have these two books to juxtapose. History was definitely kinder to John Brown, but should it have been? Should we condone hacking up your neighbors with broadswords in front of their families because they don't like abolition? No, neighbors should only be hacked with broadswords if they are coming after you with a weapon - or playing trance music too loud all night.

Seriously, thud thud is annoying.

(The segues are completely intentional. It's pretty much like preparing you to read this book.)

I tend to read a lot in bars, and I was really impressed by the number of people - oddly all men - who seemed to know who John Brown was. I myself only know of him because I am lame, and like Ken Burns' The Civil War which really made him out to be some sort of lost hero. I think Banks also follows that trail, pulling out Brown's fear of failure and need to be great and questionably turning it into justice and reason. Brown's son, the narrator, cannot tell the difference, and eventually we cannot either.

Also, life was really hard back then and Banks does a darn fine job of making us feel like we are back in it. The long descriptions of all the work to do even made my muscles ache as I was comfortably reclining and eating up this book. I remember one time it made me feel so bad I actually got out of bed and unloaded my dishwasher.

My one bone to pick with the book is how abruptly it ended. It just kept getting better and better, particularly as the group moves toward Harpers' Ferry and the events there, but then I started to get troubled by the scarcity of pages, and it was justified. Like a rolling river dammed, 783 pages later the run-on simply stops. Although I knew it was the end, I kind of in denial and thought about asking Amazon for another copy to truly verify that was it. But I'm sure the feeling of unfinished business was intentional, forcing us to speculate what lay in store for the narrator without being certain of the decision that it seemed painfully obvious he was going to make.

Still, powerful. Four out of five.

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