The Reserve, a new novel by Russel
Means Banks, was savaged on Wednesday in a review by Michiko Kakutani. However, The Boston Globe gave the book a very positive notice. The San Francisco chronicle seems to find some middle ground on the review continuum, offering equal parts praise and criticism. I’m casting my vote with the latter. The novel has much to recommend it, but in the end it seems to have missed some opportunities and crossed
The novel takes place during the Great Depression in the 1930′s. The Reserve of the title is a private wilderness enclave exclusively for the wealthy elite located in the Adirondacks. Here’s the main cast of characters:
- A wealthy attention seeking socialite that may be crazy (think Paris Hilton off her meds)
- An artist who is aligned with leftist causes (labor, communism, Spanish Civil War) who is described as one of the two best known American artists of the time
- A stoic Adirondacks guide who is impoverished, you know, money-wise, but has the untold wealth of outdoors Experience
- The artist’s wife who is tall and European – the word “Viennese” is used in every description of her – though wealth and sophisticated in her own right, she lives a simple life as housewife, gardener, and mother of two wel-behaved boys
OK. Banks tosses those four people in a shaker, throws in the Hindenburg, the Spanish Civil War, and possibly some dark secrets from the past.
The best parts of the novel read like scenes from Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who are mentioned as friends of the artist. The worst parts read like a drug store romance novel. I was describing the novel to someone early on and said, “I was tricked into reading a book with ripping bodices, only the bodice isn’t ripped.” The good parts outweigh the bad, but it’s the unevenness of the story that make it an just an okay read.
The review copy (as Machiko mentions) contains notes by the author that describes the elements of the story and their inspiration.
As a resident of the Adirondacks, Banks wanted to discuss the inequality inherent in the vacation resorts visited by the rich that exist in an area that has never recovered from the Depression – for the locals – that effectively creates two classes of citizens, one dependent upon the largess of the other.
Banks based the character of the artist on Rockwell Kent, a famous illustrator, artist, philanderer, and adventurer. The author set out to contrast the ideals of an artist who is devoted to the causes of the left but whose livelihood depends upon the patronage of the wealthy on the right.
The socialite is based upon a woman who was a mistress of Hemingway, who was truly insane, and not in a good way. I’m not sure what she was supposed to do thematically, but the character in this novel is just crazy.
The Hindenburg shows up in the novel because it actually flew several flights over the Adirondacks on its way to New Jersey with the swastika emblazoned on the tail. That makes for some chilling and ominous imagery.
I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the novel more had I not read the author’s statement at the end. The themes that he wanted to explore are not developed as well as they could have been. Knowing his authorial intent, I felt that he fell short of what should have been an excellent novel.
If I was in charge, each chapter would have begun with an amazing illustration, like this one that Rockwell Kent drew for an edition of Moby Dick:
If nothing else, it would have brought some depth to the artist and could have highlighted some of the novel’s themes with some clever selections. In the end, it seems to be just another missed opportunity.