The zeppelin, an iconic image of the 1930s, is a recurring image in Russell Banks’ THE RESERVE, which is set in the Adirondack Mountains in 1936. Jordan Groves is an artist and pilot who late one evening lands his water-plane on the lake near the luxury holiday retreat of the Cole family. There he meets Vanessa Cole, the femme fatale of the piece, an emotionally unhinged divorcée who, Siren-like, attempts to lure Groves away from his wife and children and on towards his own destruction. Vanessa and the zeppelin, which Groves encounters on one of his flights, are equally beguiling to the self-obsessed artist: both are beautifully designed symbols of freedom, both are to all intents and purposes empty. The same, unfortunately, can be said of THE RESERVE.
Banks has written superb novels in the past, such as AFFLICTION and CLOUDSPLITTER, but where those novels had a real heft and depth, THE RESERVE is virtually weightless. Conceived as a noir thriller, and celebrated as such by no less a light than William Kennedy, it is no such thing. The writing has at times a poetic fulsomeness, particularly when Banks is describing the bucolic hinterland of the Adirondack semi-wilderness, but all too often it is flabby where it should be spare. Moreover, the great noir writers, such as James M. Cain, employed plots akin to Greek tragedy, and rendered them streamlined and focused by eschewing all but the essential details. While the hubris that eventually leads to Groves’ downfall is very much a staple of Greek tragedy, Banks unfolds his story with a melodramatic clumsiness more appropriate to a Mills and Boon romance.
The characters too are less than believable. The author requires his readers to make a leap of faith early in the narrative but strives too hard to generate compelling characters in order that we will follow. The result is grotesque exaggerations that belong only in poorly conceived fiction. “He was probably a builder too,” Vanessa muses about Groves, “judging from his house and outbuildings, which seemed handmade to her … he cuts his own firewood to heat his house and studio. His arduous travels to distant, difficult lands – Greenland, Alaska, the Andes – were legendary. He was strong and lean and hardhanded …” The fictional Groves is a caricature of his contemporaries, Hemingway and Dos Passos, and while it is possible that Banks is subtly parodying the artistic machismo that pervaded the era, the reader is entitled to ask how relevant the exercise is now, particularly as the central issue is Groves’ flaws, not those of his peers.
Writers should always think long and hard about making their central characters artists or sculptors or creative minds of any kind, as there is a very real danger the reader will presume there is at least an element of autobiography involved. If that is the case with THE RESERVE, then Russell Banks should be commended for having the courage to offer us such a repellent self-portrait in Jordan Groves. Whether or not the exercise justifies an entire novel is another matter; when it comes to noir, less is more. THE RESERVE might well have made for a satisfying short story, but as a novel it is a zeppelin – a good idea in its conception, but flimsy and unwieldy, and as prone to crash and burn when reality finally muscles in on the theory. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.