Friday, February 22, 2008


If you decide to read Russell Banks' Trailerpark (and I suggest you do), you should know that you can't approach it like any collection of short stories. there are two general types of short story collection: those that contain stories which are totally unrelated to one another, and those with a theme or common thread. Generally, though, even the stories in the "common thread" variety can be read and understood independently of one another. Jennifer Weiner's The Guy Not Taken, for example, contains three stories about a family over a ten-year period. But you could start with any of them, or skip the middle one, or only read the first and have it make sense.

Trailerpark is not like that. The first story, "The Guinea Pig Lady", is crucial to the rest. Pay attention to the details, and don't quibble about the misrepresentation in calling an 80-page story "short". This story introduces all of the characters in the rest of the book, most of whom get their chance to stand in the spotlight, and in some cases, you won't get their backstory again.

You may guess from the tone of this post that I didn't do that. I'd intended to curl up with this one before bed and was not pleased to see that I'd barely make a dent in it. I'm also the type of reader who likes to get what she came for. I still haven't forgiven Toni Morrison for writing a book called "Jazz" which had nothing to do with jazz, so I was kind of skimming the parts that weren't about the Guinea Pig Lady. It took me most of the rest of the book to realize that wasn't the point of this story, which was rather meandering and thin compared to the rest of them.

The stories don't merely radiate out from the first. They move back and forth in time, so that you meet the retired Captain when he was a little boy doing his first bit of driving off the farm in his dad's Model A Ford on his 14th birthday. You learn how broken-down Claudel Bing once regarded himself as one of life's winners and see him on the upswing. A hippie drug dealer gets murdered by his supplier early in the book, yet you see him, ghostlike, reappear in happier days throughout the other short stories.

Banks could've taken this collection about the denizens of a New Hampshire trailer park in two obvious directions. He could have made it a funny book, filled it with "colorful characters" and taken it totally over the top, Northern Exposure-style. Or, he could've made it gritty and full of misery, adultery, drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. To his credit, he strikes a balance. His characters are, by and large, not happy people. The book can be summed up by a passage found near the end:

It's true of trailerparks that the people who live there are generally alone at the center of their lives. They are widows and widowers, divorcees and bachelors and retired army officers, a black man in a white society, a black woman there too, a drug dealer, a solitary child of a broken home, a drunk, a homosexual in a heterosexual society -- all of them, man and woman, adult and child, basically alone in the world.

Banks can explain how they got there, what drives them, their fears and desires and demons, but he never passes judgement. Claudel Bing's alcoholism seems a reasonable response to his situation, as does Flora Pease's guinea-pig hoarding. You understand perfectly how the advances of the same man, although equally unwelcome to both, were a positive force in the life of one woman and a destructive force in the life of another. At the end of the book, when everyone's desires, fears and demons assume the focal point of a large sum of money ferreted away in one man's ice hut, it's downright heartbreaking and a little bit darkly comical at the same time. Much like life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My two collections of short stories are not really connected.
I think now I will try putting out a connected collection.
thanks for the article.

Terry Finley