Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Maleness That Failed

"Affliction,” the Book and Film.  Written by Russell Banks. Film directed by Paul Schrader.  Cast:  Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn and William Dafoe. 

This film is based on one of the most powerful stories by one of the top fiction writers in the U.S. – Russell Banks.  Banks concentrates, not in a political way, but in a graphic way, on the life of working-class people in New England and Florida who live in trailer parks or under bridges, troubled men and boys who drive buses, engage in theft and petty drug dealing or are the town snow-plow driver and cop.  “Affliction” itself is set in a small cold New Hampshire town, Lawford, in forests and mountains covered in snow, where summer never seems to appear.  It's sort of like a Fargo deathscape with hills.

Wade Whitehouse is the prototypical working-class male of a certain generation who grew up thinking ‘macho’ was the same as being a man.  His ‘pop’ is a massive and abusive drunk; his mother a meek woman who puts up with it.   Their father verbally and physically abused everyone, including his two ‘pansy’ sons, until they got out of the isolated house.  Both Wade and brother Rolfie still share the scars – they are ‘afflicted.’  Wade became somewhat like his father, though he doesn’t fully realize it.  Rolfie retreated into timidity and books. 

This book is a fitting sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” That book was also the a story of the failure of a working-class male in the face of wealth.  These books are more than the light-weight stories of “The Great Gatsby” – they truly are the great American novels. 

Class plays a role in this book, as you would imagine.  The men who run this small town – especially Gordon LaRiviere – hire everyone, control who is elected, who becomes police chief, who makes the money, who owns the land.  Wade never really understands how things work, except he’s at the bottom.  When a rich hunter dies in the woods while trying to shoot a buck on the first day of hunting season, Wade absurdly blames his buddy Jack who was the hunting guide.  Really without any proof, just an idea that Jack did it for the money from some mysterious Mafioso - money Wade never has.  This obsession leads to a violent denouement.

Wade’s ex-wife is now married to a guy that drives an Audi, while Wade is still in a beat-up old truck or car.  She won’t let their daughter Jill spend time with Wade, and Jill is afraid of her father, whose anger and rough ways are just below the surface.  She always wants to go home to her upper middle-class household, where bad things usually don’t happen.   Wade can’t make appointments to pick her up on time, can’t deal with his car problems or tooth problems, drinks and smokes weed at the drop of a hat, disappears, has no concept of time – he’s basically poor father material.   

The most gruesome scene is Wade and his girlfriend Maggie’s arrival at the isolated Whitehouse home in wintertime.  In it sits Pop drinking whiskey as usual.  The house is freezing cold, as the furnace has died and Pop has not fixed it.  They ask where Ma is.  Gradually it dawns on them – and not through anything Pop has said – that Ma lies dead upstairs in bed, wrapped in blankets.  Did she die of hypothermia?  At the pre-funeral family meeting, their sister, who is a born-again Christian, tries to lead a prayer.  Pop growls like an angry bear at certain lame Christian clichés, then loudly ends the prayer meeting – which even Wade is scoffing at. 

What is really going on in town is that LaRiviere and a rich businessman are buying up all the property around the mountain for a ski resort, which will destroy the little town of Lawford.  Wade is told that this property grab is going on - and it might even involve his father's house.  But never understands that this is not why the hunter died or was shot.  This ‘conspiracy’ is over his head.  His inability to think logically and instead to react emotionally dooms him. 

The story ends in fire, death and disappearance into Canada.  You will never forget it, nor the ‘maleness’ that fails. 

Other great books by Russell Banks – "Cloudsplitter" (about John Brown),“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift,” “Trailer Park,” “The Reserve," "Lost Memory of Skin" and “Rule of the Bone.” (The last reviewed below.)  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought the book at Mayday Books excellent sale / used section.
Red Frog
March 24, 2015

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