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Book Review: The Reserve

By (February 27, 2008) No Comment

The Reserve
By Russell Banks
HarperCollins, 2008

Near the end of Russell Banks’ newest novel The Reserve, the hero Jordan Groves, finding himself in a spot of trouble, tries to take on the following mind frame:

He thought of Ernest Hemingway’s stories and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. That was the style he needed, and he felt that if he could keep on affecting it, he could become it….

The style is not only an affectation of Jordan’s. Banks has set his novel in the Adirondack Mountains in 1936, the latter edge of the interwar period during which time, as World War I veteran Ford Madox Ford declared, “there were strong men” writing novels. The Reserve is Banks’ love note to that era, at least as he romantically conceives of it; it’s a Lost Generation fairy tale.

The plot follows Jordan Groves’ complicated liaison with a gorgeous, mentally unbalanced socialite named Vanessa Cole. Jordan is a famous painter modeled off the book illustrator Rockwell Kent, and Vanessa is the seductive “rich bitch” modeled off so many women in novels from the 1930s—she seems very consciously to be a hybrid of Hemingway’s promiscuous Brett Ashley and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dangerously unstable Nicole Diver. Vanessa’s feelings about Jordan most palpably evoke Banks’ yearning for a manlier age:

He was strong and lean and hardhanded. Many of the men whom she had successfully seduced were cut from the same cloth as he—rich men; cosmopolitan men; even a few famous writers and artists…. She was rumored to have had affairs with Ernest Hemingway and Max Ernst and Baron von Blixen. But none of them had hands like his. Their bodies had been hardened by sport and exercise, not by physical work.

Banks is a skilled writer with a fluent, lucid prose style, and The Reserve is occasionally enlivened by a fight, an exposed infidelity, and even an accidental death, but the reader is never really able to figure out what the novel is about beyond an adoring pastiche of an era that probably never existed in the first place. The characters are mostly unhappy, but their disenchantment is treated romantically, as though broken, adulterous people are rather glamorous, so long as they have lovely pale throats or hard hands. Maybe they can be made glamorous, but only through a Vaseline-smeared lens of nostalgia.