Stories draw intimate portraits

Sunday, August 6, 2000

Domestic strife, memory and the lives of ordinary people are recurring themes in the 31 stories in "The Angel on the Roof" (HarperCollins, $27.50) by Russell Banks.

The best are among a series of interwoven stories about a small community in the Granite State Trailer Park at the edge of a lake. In one, "The Fisherman," Merle is a reclusive, unpredictable old man who spends the long winter in a shack out on the frozen lake. When he wins the lottery, his trailer park neighbors, who had pretty much left him alone, begin to pester him for favors, even venturing onto the ice to seek him out in his refuge. Banks' straightforward, almost matter-of-fact style produces some eloquent writing:

"For over half a century Merle had been an ice fisherman. Where most people in this region endure winter to get to summer, Merle endured summer to get to winter."

In other beautiful stories, including "Lobster Night" and "The Guinea Pig Lady," Banks lifts a veil to provide an intimate glimpse into the lives of people trying to cope with problems: a broken marriage, alcoholism, an irretrievably damaged relationship.

Often, the intimacy conveyed by Banks' writing is enhanced by the setting. Many of the stories take place in the heart of winter, in New Hampshire, where Banks spent "an especially painful chunk of my childhood," he writes in the introduction.

Descriptions of landscape are often starkly poetic. "The air was crystalline, almost absent. The fields lay like aged plates of bone � dry, scoured by the cold until barren of possibility, incapable even of decomposition." Again and again, Banks examines the theme of remembrance, the way a physical act can reignite an evasive memory, the difficulty of reconstructing fragmented images of someone who has died or left.

Other stories portray historical figures, including Edgar Allan Poe in "The Caul," but are less memorable and lack the closeness and immediacy of Banks' tales about ordinary people.

In his introduction, Banks reveals much about some of the stories. The irretrievability of the past preoccupies him. He recalls how as a youngster he was bored by his parents' stories about their lives.

"Like most people, I have paid too little attention to the tales I've been told about the lives and events in my family that precede the remarkable event of my own birth," he writes.

And he sees the same indifference in his children:

"I watch their eyes glaze over, their attention drift on to secret plans for the evening and weekend. Soon it will be too late, I want to say. Soon all you'll have of me will be your diluted memories of my stories about my life before you were born."