By Russell Banks
HarperCollins, 287 pp., $24.95
Every September, when the fall foliage in the Northeast is at its peak, I make a pilgrimage to the Adirondack Museum in the tiny upstate New York hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake. With its world-class display of handmade guide boats, its mining and lumbering exhibits, vintage fly rods and hunting rifles, regional art and photography, and memorabilia from the stately old summer hotels and wilderness camps of a century ago, the museum contains one of the nation's finest collections of north country Americana.
There is a darker side, however, to the history of the Adirondacks. To understand the grim human secrets that lie just beneath the surface of this seemingly serene and well-regulated wilderness retreat, one must turn to such writers as Theodore Dreiser, E. L. Doctorow, and Russell Banks.
Banks's new novel, "The Reserve," may well be the best - and darkest - work of fiction written to date about the storied region of high peaks, glacial lakes, and vast forests covering an area nearly the size of Massachusetts.
Set in the 1930s, the novel begins with an arresting scene in which a seaplane, landing on a beautiful lake in the midst of a private, 40,000-acre reserve, comes alarmingly close to smacking into a mountainside. A young woman named Vanessa Cole watches with admiration and a hint of excitement over the possibility that the pilot may be about to "crash his airplane deliberately against the thousand-foot vertical slab of gray granite."
The pilot, a world-renowned left-wing artist named Jordan Groves, is one of Banks's most complex and fascinating characters. Although he and Vanessa are immediately attracted to each other, Jordan still hopes to salvage his failing relationship with his lovely wife, Alicia, who has put up with the artist's casual infidelities for years, and is nearing her breaking point. Then there is Jordan's ambivalence about the Adirondacks themselves. He is deeply attuned to their wild beauty, and to the clear mountain light in which everything seems "etched with acid, making him feel he could see and touch each and every leaf on each and every tree, every patch of lichen on every rock, every boulder glistening in the stream." At the same time, he is revolted by the rigid class system that has made fiefdoms like the plutocratic Coles' reserve possible.
Vanessa, for her part, is not only gorgeous, electrically sexual, and full of a sense of entitlement. Soon enough, it's evident that she's also stark raving mad.
Early on in the novel, Vanessa's father, a famous brain surgeon, suffers a fatal heart attack at the Coles' lodge. At his funeral, Vanessa delivers an astounding impromptu oration, "a strange, tangled account of her relationship with her father, suggesting, but not stating explicitly, that when she was a little girl, he had sexually abused her." With the full support of the Coles' family physician and attorneys, Mrs. Cole decides to have her daughter institutionalized. In response, Vanessa kidnaps her mother and imprisons her at their mountain retreat.
Realizing that she has committed a terrible and perhaps irrevocable act, Vanessa appeals for help to a local hunting and fishing guide named Hubert St. Germain. Hubert is a fundamentally decent person, a throwback to "men of an earlier era, when the region had not yet been settled by white people - solitary, self-sufficient hunters and trappers and woodsmen who thought of themselves as living off the land, regardless of who owned title to it." Yet for all of his professional expertise and self-effacing personal charm, Hubert realizes that, as he puts it to himself, he is "in way over my head" with Vanessa.
In a sense, Hubert's drowning metaphor is apt for each of the characters in "The Reserve." Jordan, who was inspired in part by the illustrator and political activist Rockwell Kent, has his art to infuse meaning in his life. In much the same way, Hubert has his beloved wilderness to retreat into. But once Vanessa's self-destructive impulses gain control of her, mayhem ensues.
Set against the backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe and the deepening economic inequities of the Depression in the United States, "The Reserve" is at once a harrowing mystery, an illuminating psychological novel of subverted love and family dysfunction, and a powerful commentary on class structure in America.
All of which raises an intriguing question. Does Banks, the author of such acclaimed novels as "Affliction," "The Sweet Hereafter," and "Cloudsplitter," espouse in his fiction the kind of deterministic social Darwinism that drove many of the novels of the period in which "The Reserve" is set? While I can't speak for Banks, I think perhaps not. The body of his work suggests that he is far too "American" a writer, with too much faith in the ideals of democracy, to subscribe to any kind of philosophical or political fatalism.
Of this much I'm certain. Banks's willingness to confront, both in "The Reserve" and over the course of his career, the hard truths about the world we live in, and to follow those truths to whatever dark places they may lead, goes a long way toward explaining his longstanding reputation as one of America's finest contemporary fiction writers.
Howard Frank Mosher lives and writes in the northern Green Mountains of Vermont.