Where have all the good men gone?: afflicted fathers and endangered daughters in Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter.
This article explores a recurrent theme in postwar American
culture, a perceived crisis of manhood/masculinity, through Russell
Banks's novel The Sweet Hereafter. On one level, Banks establishes
a sense of anxiety and threat with roots in confused and devalued
masculine roles. Linked in the narrative to the deaths of multiple
children of a small town and especially to fathers' failure to
protect their daughters, Banks implies that America's future is
imperiled by the degradation of fatherhood. But on a deeper level, the
novel suggests that at the core of America's postwar anxiety about
families and fathers is not a loss but a lack. The idealized masculine
roles whose loss we mourn, Banks tells us, may never really have existed
Keywords: Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter, fatherhood, crisis of masculinity, absence and loss
|Publication:||Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265|
|Issue:||Date: Fall, 2011 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 3|
|Topic:||NamedWork: The Sweet Hereafter (Banks, Russell) (Novel)|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States|
What has happened to the American male? For a long time he seemed
utterly confident in his manhood, sure of his masculine role in society,
easy and definite in his sense of sexual identity. [...] Today men are
more and more conscious of maleness not as a fact but as a
problem.--Arthur Schlesinger, "The Crisis of American
Masculinity" (1958, p. 292)
The cover of a recent issue of The Atlantic (July/August 2010) announces "The End of Men," its implications accentuated by a pink, flaccid male symbol. Positioned centrally as part of "The Ideas Issue," the accompanying article by Hanna Rosin is presented as one of the "most powerful ideas of the year." Powerful, perhaps. Unique or surprising, not at all. The Atlantic's bold proclamation crystallizes a sentiment that has pervaded the media for over a year now, growing more incessant with the perseverance of the recession and shifting gender demographics in secondary education. Moreover, we've heard this ominous prediction before. As the quotation from Schlesinger above attests, the sense of loss and doom surrounding American manhood is a recurrent theme of postwar American culture. Sociologist and scholar of men's studies Michael Kimmel (1996) has pointed out that American masculinity is in fact a constantly changing construct, but these changes are almost always accompanied by a perception of crisis and responses of confusion, defensiveness, and anxiety. At such moments, scholars and thinkers seek reasons (for Rosin, post-industrial society has revealed itself to be better suited to the characteristics traditionally associated with women; for Schlesinger, the phenomenon of the group absorbing a sense of individual identity strips man of his sense of self and therefore self as a man); mass media, pundits, and society at large cast blame (often at women) and long for remedy and restoration, at any cost.
Russell Banks, author of more than a dozen books of fiction spanning more than three decades, engages frequently in his writing with the experience of conflicted masculinity. Influenced by Hemingway and often compared to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, Banks has established himself as "a major American novelist with access to the mainstream" (Graham, 1992, p. 47). His effective interplay of post-modern technique, meta-fiction, and experimental narrative voice with gritty realism in novels including Continental Drift (1985), Cloudsplitter (1989), and Affliction (1990) have won him critical praise and impressive literary awards.
Though his fictional scope is ever-expanding, Banks's most indelible contribution to contemporary American literature is his uncompromising yet compassionate depictions of blue-collar American life in New England. The characteristic Banks protagonist, despite notable exceptions, is the disenfranchised, blue-collar, white, heterosexual man attempting to find his place and purpose. (1) With these protagonists (e.g., the eponymous Hamilton Stark, Bob Dubois of Continental Drift, Wade Whitefield in Affliction, Chappy "The Bone" Dorset in Rule of the Bone), Banks has developed a sustained literary exploration of thorny father-son relationships, male alcoholism and violence, familial abandonment, spiritual and emotional isolation, the failed American dream, and confused values in a rapidly changing world, all addressed as aspects of a problematic working-class American manhood.
In The Sweet Hereafter (1991), one encounters layers of complexity and an undeniable concern with besieged masculinity and its imagined consequences for the future of "our town." The novel sheds new light on the recurring "crises" of American manhood. The devastating death of "the children of our town" in The Sweet Hereafter serves as a metaphor for an ostensibly pervasive national tragedy that Niemi (1997) identifies as a prominent concern at this point in Banks's career: "the wholesale abandonment of the family as a basic social structure" (p. 149). (2) Banks's foreboding commentary is poignantly articulated in the novel by Mitch Stephens, one of his narrators, who asserts:
Mitch cannot determine precisely what that "something terrible" was, just as the cause of the accident remains indefinite to readers, but the text clearly associates this terrible thing with the breakdown of the American family, in turn, integrally connected to what Banks depicts as the precarious paternal figure, imperiled by embattled masculine roles. What seems to be a novel about the "lost children" of America at the end of the century is also, or actually, about the distressed white men of America at the end of the century.
Banks is engaging in the same inquiry as Schlesinger and Rosin, but his conclusion is quite different. In fact, Banks's conclusion, regarding the crisis of American manhood that his novel reveals and bemoans, could best be described as inconclusive. He leads us to consider the ambiguity of the very notion of stable models of masculinity and casts doubt on his own narrative argument about lost masculine roles and paternal efficacy. In doing so, he subtly invites us to explore the possibility that the crisis being confronted is not loss but rather absence, thereby illuminating a human tendency to conflate these two experiences in order to preserve our collective myths of American identity and hold out the possibility of restoration. Ultimately, The Sweet Hereafter suggests that what we mourn as lost in an ever-changing American culture--respected, strong roles for men and ideals of masculinity and paternity as foundations of the American family and, in turn, American society--may never have existed in the form we relentlessly seek to recover and yet we continue to pursue return to this inauthentic past because the alternatives (acknowledging lack? creating something new?) are daunting. The Sweet Hereafter begins in the aftermath of a horrific accident that has left the fictional town of Sam Dent, New York reeling in pain. On a snowy winter morning, a school bus skids off the road, through a guardrail, and into a watery sandpit below, killing more than half of the children aboard. The story is told in deposition-like monologues by four narrators--Delores Driscoll, the bus driver and only narrator with two chapters, which open and close the novel; Billy Ansel, the sole eye witness to the accident in which his twin children perish; Mitchell Stephens, the New York City lawyer who arrives to enlist the bereaved parents in a negligence lawsuit; and Nichole Burnell, one of the few surviving children who is crippled in the crash. From these varied perspectives, the novel explores not only the experiences of grief, anger, and confusion in response to this tragedy but also the questions of moral ambiguity, community dissolution, causality, and certainty that tragedy tends to illuminate.
The public communal trauma of the accident intersects repeatedly in the novel with smaller, more personal traumas of individual families to underscore the threat of social destruction and to link that threat to the failure of not simply the family but more particularly the father. Through Billy Ansel, Mitch Stephens, and Sam Burnell, the principal male characters and father figures, Banks suggests that confused or perverted models of masculinity, the soldier, the breadwinner, and the patriarch respectively, have resulted in a deterioration of fatherhood that may be largely responsible for the loss of one of the fundamental "social units that provided respect and protection for children." (3)
This underlying concern is evident neither in the main plot depicting the emotional and legal responses to the accident nor in Atom Egoyan's 1997 film adaptation, which has received far more scholarly attention than the novel. It emerges in the subplots and embedded narratives involving fathers and daughters that are present in the monologues of the three central narrators, eliminated or modified in the film. (4) In each story there is a lost child; a father is tested in relationship with his young daughter, the feminine in its most vulnerable form, and is revealed to be lacking, to the detriment of both. Daughters are abandoned, neglected, or abused; fathers are left alone, powerless, and guilty. Though the accident is the most prominent traumatic rupture in the novel, it is not the first and rather functions to make visible the underlying fissures that already exist among the families and community of Sam Dent.
The first father encountered is Billy Ansel. As a widowed Vietnam vet who, from his car trailing behind, helplessly watches the accident that kills his children, Billy is the most sympathetic male character in the novel. A long-suffering local hero, he is admired by everyone in town, praised not only for his devotion to his deceased wife and for raising their children alone, but also for successfully reintegrating other Vietnam veterans back into society. Billy's status as a veteran is arguably his most significant attribute. By beginning with a Vietnam vet, Banks instantly evokes a known, complex archetype of American manhood. As Susan Jeffords (1989) points out in The Remas-culinization of America, by the 1980s Vietnam veterans had become culturally powerful "emblems of an unjustly discriminated masculinity" (p. 116). Cultural representations, she expounds, largely depicted them as damaged-emotionally, psychologically, and physically--by unspeakable experiences of an unthinkable war. (5) In the eyes of Sam Dent, Billy somehow came back home undamaged, but in his first person narrative, he reveals that this is not so.
Billy illustrates the untenable predicament of masculinity when the role one has been groomed for--in this case the traditionally exalted role of the soldier--loses its perceived value, as it had most drastically in the Vietnam era, and conflicts with emerging demands of positive manhood. In the seventies, new expectations of men to be emotionally available and nurturing, share in child rearing, etc., were being voiced largely in connection to women's demands of equality and partnership. Billy is shown to be ill-suited for becoming this new kind of man because he has undergone a "hardening of [his] heart" in order to survive the trauma of war. His detachment is most strikingly evident in the immediate aftermath of the accident when he assists in carrying bodies out of the bus on stretchers and lining up the dead, including his own son and daughter. Many consider his actions courageous, but he admits to working so long at this unpleasant and eerily familiar task in order to avoid having to deal with his feelings. Although as sole caregiver for his children, he represents an alternate version of fatherhood from the more traditional patriarchal role, the emotional rigidity of the soldier undermines his ability to fulfill this task as he feels he should. (6)
The wound that impairs Billy's capacity to give himself fully to fathering is encapsulated in a troubling memory of the day he thought he had lost his four-year old daughter Jessica. Thus, while both son and daughter die in the accident, Billy's failure as a father is most poignantly illustrated, not in their deaths, which were entirely out of his control, but in his abandonment, physically and emotionally, of his lost little girl.
Four years prior to the accident, when everything seems to be going well with his business and his family, the Ansels go on vacation to Jamaica because, after all, "Isn't [a vacation] the greatest thing an American dad can do for his family?" (Banks, 1991, p. 49). As a good dad in America or at least "on vacation from America," he feels invincible. He explains, "by some necessary logic, I believed that because terrible things had happened to me then and there [in Vietnam] it was impossible for them to happen to me here and now" (Banks, 1991, p. 51). This logic is shattered when halfway back to their resort after stopping at a rundown market in Montego Bay, Billy realizes that Jessica is not in the car. She had been left behind, a helpless little girl among the Jamaican boys in the parking lot who are fascinated by her whiteness and blond hair.
Sharing this story, Billy exposes himself as a bad father. What kind of father drives off without his child? Adding to the blame, Billy and his wife were high at the time-and for most of the vacation. The reader's admonition of Billy is complicated, however, by a reminder of his identity as a victimized Vietnam vet. Moreover, the act of leaving his daughter behind is far less disturbing, it turns out, than his reaction to this oversight, a reaction conditioned by his war experience. For upon realizing that Jessica is not in the car, Billy says and does nothing. He fears that "if I admitted that my daughter had been kidnapped or had fallen from the car or had simply been lost in a foreign country, then the whole world for the rest of my life would be Vietnam" (Banks, 1991, p. 51), so he keeps driving toward their rental. Eventually Billy turns the car around, but before Jessica is recovered, he had already decided that if she were not at the market, he would not look for her. To survive such a blow he would need to preserve his strength so could not waste any energy "trying to save what was already lost" (Banks, 1991, p. 54). As chaos and trauma cross the threshold of his post-war world, he fortifies himself against the emotional vulnerability that fatherhood demands and reverts to soldierly strategies for psychological and emotional forbearance. He no longer believes in the safety of a post-Vietnam world and, thus, can no longer give himself to his children.
Billy's capitulation to the loss of his daughter is highlighted against the cultural backdrop of the eighties, with the milk carton campaign for desperately sought missing children and the highly publicized 1981 Adam Walsh case that catapulted grieving but relentless father, John Walsh, when he began hosting America's Most Wanted in 1988, into the country's best known advocate for missing and exploited children. Billy's willingness, more so his need, to let his daughter go rather than engage in a doomed mission to recover the irrecoverable, contradicts notions of the good father who unyieldingly searches for his lost child and speaks to how damaged Billy is, suggesting that post-Vietnam, being a soldier has become a liability for the American family man.
Mitchell Stephens, unlike Billy, admits to no weakness except in relation to his daughter Zoe. Mitch comes to Sam Dent because, more like John Walsh than Billy Ansel, he is motivated by the senseless death of so many children. Mitch is a self-described "heat seeking-missile" (Banks, 1991, p. 91) aimed at those entities that endanger our children. Identifying with the bereaved parents, he is on a passionate mission to avenge their loss and enforce responsibility (via punishment), thereby restoring justice and order. But while he is a force to be reckoned in the arena of law, as a father, he too is unable to measure up, with tragic consequences.
A wealthy, white-collar professional, a description that distinguishes him from all other characters in the novel, Mitch represents the masculine archetype of the breadwinner, who finds his zest for life and sense of power in his work. Work, not family, provides his raison d'etre and identity. According to Mark Gerzon (1982) in A Choice of Heroes, a pioneering book on American manhood, "The breadwinner's virtue is equal to his productivity. To his wife and children, he is a hero because he provides for them" (p. 126). By this definition, Mitch should be celebrated but, instead, he is cast as villain in the Stephens family drama; his wife Klara claims to be his victim, while he identifies their daughter Zoe as the "real victim." The growing divide between family members ("The fission of the nuclear family" as Mitch calls it) likely results from his frequent absence from home while working toward partner in a leading New York City law firm. Mitch becomes an exceptional lawyer, able to manipulate evidence and mount convincing cases, but he can't be an exceptional lawyer and an exceptional father because the roles involve conflicting demands and conditions. In addition to time, being a lawyer requires authoritative certainty, control, and an investment in the powers of proof and logic, qualities that don't necessarily translate into good parenting. So though he climbs the ladder of success at work, he pays the price in his personal life. Through his characterization of Mitch, Banks suggests that the price exacted exceeds the rewards, particularly when, after World War II and the women's movement, men were not the only providers and, as noted earlier, were expected to be more nurturing and present within the home.
By the time we encounter him, Mitch doesn't even know where Zoe is. She ran away from home at the age of seventeen and, for five years, has been a drug addict living on the streets. Zoe is the reason Mitch identifies with the parents who lost children in Sam Dent. The relationship between father and daughter has been reduced to phone calls in which Zoe scams "Daddy, dear Daddy" for money with the false promise of cleaning up her life or coming home. And because he loves her and wants to protect her against the many threats she may encounter if he refuses, he sends the money. The destructive father-daughter dynamics, arguably resulting from relegation to the world of work, are encapsulated in his memory of a long-ago family vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Discovering that Zoe, then an infant, was experiencing a life-threatening allergic reaction, Mitch and Klara rush her to the hospital. Yet, because her airway could close on the way, Mitch holds Zoe on his lap with his pocket-knife poised over her throat, prepared, if necessary, to perform an emergency tracheotomy, as instructed by the doctor with whom he spoke on the phone. To keep her calm during the drive, he sings "I've got six-pence, jolly jolly sixpence." He reports feeling totally in control at this moment. He describes the thrill of a "clearheaded power" with "no ambivalence [...] no second-guessing" and "no mistrusted motives" (Banks, 1991, p. 124). He experiences utter moral clarity; he knows what must be done in order to protect his daughter and knows that he can do what is required of him. The source of this power, a God-like power over life and death, lies in his ability to have his path determined, to be able to delineate "facts" and act upon them, like a lawyer. He can be his daughter's savior.
In this recollection, Banks establishes the two key elements of this father-daughter relationship: money used to signify love and the masculine appeal of the rescue narrative. The song Mitch sings boasts of a carefree life enabled by "sixpence to last me all my life," enough to spend, lend, and send home to one's wife. It promises pleasure and plenty for the working man. But in the lyrics not shared in the novel, the song goes on as sixpence becomes four, then two, then none, and the singer has nothing for himself nor for his family. (7) Similarly for Mitch and Zoe, Mitch's career as a lawyer allowed him to provide financially for his family in fine New York City style, but what he provides fails to suffice. These women, Mitch insinuates, wanted something from him that ultimately he could not give--presence, care, nurturing. Banks implies that because Mitch's work impedes his providing these less tangible riches, money becomes the sole currency of love. Zoe, demanding that her father repeatedly make good on his promise of sixpence, tests his love, and to pass her tests and remain her "Daddy," he must adhere to the terms he'd set. But because money was never what she truly wanted, Zoe uses it to accelerate her self-destruction and punish her father for their emotional impoverishment.
Manipulating his love and paternal desire to protect her, Zoe seizes control of the relationship. Through her self-destructive behavior and fallacious promises of rehabilitation, she repeatedly encourages and utterly thwarts Mitch's paternal rescue fantasies. The sense of moral clarity that empowered him as a father during the car ride to the hospital many years earlier is denied. Mitch no longer holds the phallic knife in his hand. No longer can he know with certainty how to care for his daughter. No longer can he act with confidence to protect her. He can bust into drug dens and drag her out like Rambo (Banks's comparison), but she will only flee his care again. "I had for years been tied to the ground," he laments, "helpless and enraged by my own inability to choose between belief and disbelief.... I loved my daughter. And because I loved her, I could not know the truth and then act accordingly" (Banks, 1991, p. 157). Mitch is emasculated by ambiguity, the lack of an ability to construct the "truth" he trades in as a lawyer. He is rendered feckless, unable to save his daughter in distress.
Confined to the role of financial provider and excluded from the role of protector, Mitch becomes trapped in a rigid cycle whereby he supplies Zoe with the money she requests in desperate hope that she will use it to return to his care but, inevitably, it accelerates her self-destruction. This is a cycle that could only be broken by the paradoxically promising prospect of an HIV test, at a time when AIDS was considered a death sentence. Held out at the end of his chapter by Zoe as a ploy for cash but embraced by Mitch, the test results will be the definitive proof he needs to wrest back control: "I felt incredibly powerful at that moment, as if I had been waiting for the moment for years. [...] she could no longer keep me from becoming who I am. Mitchell Stephens, Esquire" (Banks, 1991, p. 157). Proof provides certainty, which as a lawyer would allow Mitch to act definitively and escape the mire of uncertainty he has occupied, impotently, as father.
Sam Burnell, the final father represented, is the most insidious version of fatherhood in the novel. Before the accident in which she sustains a spinal cord injury that renders her paraplegic, his daughter Nichole had been the gorgeous town sweetheart, an all-American girl, and her family, by all accounts, fine, respectable, church-going people. However, Sam and Nichole share the dark secret of father-daughter incest. Because this secret is revealed from Nichole's perspective, Banks disallows an identification with Sam that might sanction the common excuses of no harm done or the seductive power of the young nymphet that one encounters in literature like Nabokov's Lolita (1955) or films like American Beauty (1999) and Egoyan's Sweet Hereafter adaptation. Egoyan (1997) presents the Burnells' incestuous relationship more ambiguously and problematically as a romantic relationship, while, as film scholar Melanie Boyd (2007) notes, Banks was working with the incest narrative that emerged from feminist discourses in the eighties and emphasizes the coercive nature of the relationship (p. 277). (8) I would add that in doing so, Banks is also situating the novel in its specific time amidst the political and ideological currents of that time that challenged the ideals of white fatherhood and heterosexual masculine power.
Though Banks captures the ambivalent feelings Nichole has for her father, hating him for his attentions but also feeling diminished when he retreats from her after the accident, the novel unequivocally establishes the harm enacted upon Nichole by allowing her to narrate their father-daughter story. Nichole describes herself before the accident as being "ashamed all the time and afraid. Because of Daddy" (Banks, 1991, p. 173). After the accident, when the molestation ceases due to her new condition as a "wheelchair girl" that shames her father and foils his erotic fantasies, Nichole acquires a new perspective. She refuses to share this secret. Instead she owns it, her father's secret guilt. She declares, "Now I saw him as a thief in the night who had robbed his daughter of what was supposed to be permanently hers--like he had robbed me of my soul or something" (Banks, 1991, p. 180). Nichole is very much a lost child, not due to the accident, but before it at the hands of her father.
The reader readily identifies as reprehensible Sam's behavior, the illicit sexualization of his young daughter as well as his subsequent eagerness to profit from her injury through the law suit; nonetheless, when we first encounter him, the many ways he strives to be a "good daddy" are striking. Upon Nichole's return home from the hospital, he has built a ramp for her wheelchair, widened the doorways, and converted the first floor sunroom into her new bedroom. In many ways, he is familiar as a traditional working-class father: head of household, handyman, working man struggling to support his family. The Burnells appear to be the average American family, but they are also a patriarchal family, and Sam, the staunch patriarch. Nichole describes her father as "always the next morning [after the abuse] just the same old Daddy, grumpy and distracted, bossing the boys and me and Jennie around, ignoring Mom the way he does" (p. 175). This quotation clearly establishes the power dynamics of the Burnell household.
Nichole's story reveals the dark underside of the patriarchal family that, at its utmost extreme, manifests itself in incest. As Judith Herman (1981/2001) asserts in her groundbreaking book on father-daughter incest, it is "not an aberration but rather a common and predictable abuse of patriarchal power. It is also a means of perpetuating the power of fathers, one of the many private crimes (rape, sexual trafficking, domestic battery) by which male dominance and female subordination are enforced" (p. 219). In Nichole's chapter, Banks draws upon this then emerging feminist discourse of incest that Herman describes as "represent[ing] a serious challenge to the ideology of male dominance" (p. 22). The Burnell story illustrates the destructive consequences of unchecked paternal rights and control over those in his family, especially one's daughter.
A disturbing parallel becomes apparent between the Burnell story and the Stephens story. In each, the father experiences excitement, a sense of his own power and manliness, from his ability to control his daughter's body. Each, in these moments, feels confident in the masculine role with which he identifies (for Mitch, provider and protector; for Sam, patriarch or master of the house) but otherwise does not feel totally secure. The specter of penetration in each case represents the ultimate expression of control and makes clear the peril of defining masculinity through and against the defenseless female body. Of course, a significant difference is that Mitch mobilizes his power "over" Zoe in order to save her, and the penetration is never actualized. We cannot be sure that Sam has penetrated Nichole, but neither can we be sure that he has not. The very real possibility of penetration, not for Nichole's well-being but at her expense, constitutes an act of violence of a vastly different magnitude, distinguishing Sam from both Mitch and Billy. The latter want to be good fathers but are confounded in their attempts. Sam, though ultimately regretful and ashamed, knowingly transgresses the subtle boundary between power and responsibility as man of the house and, without those boundaries, merges the roles of father and oppressor.
The fact that Sam is the last father presented in the novel suggests that, while using the three characters collectively to develop a unified exploration of corrupted fatherhood, Banks also is building from concern to critique. The structure of the novel positions one to look back at Billy and Mitch with a perspective that highlights how they are not at fault so much as victims of society or circumstance. More sympathy is generated for them, especially for Mitch who is less sympathetic and likable than Billy to begin with, in comparison to Sam. Sam is selfish, thinks only of himself, and enacts harm directly upon his child, rather than merely being unable to protect her from harm at the hands of others (or herself). Any harm caused by Billy and Mitch is an indirect result of their inaction or absence.
In addition, more than the others, the Burnell father-daughter subplot interacts with the main plot. Nichole's desire to punish her father effectively destroys the lawsuit. With her broken body, Nichole is finally able to find her voice and assert her own narrative, which usurps not only Sam's but also Mitch's. It is Nichole who provides the town with its authoritative (though specious) account of causality for the accident--Delores was speeding. With her deposition, Nichole renders her father utterly without recourse. She leaves him feebly trying to explain that she has lied, but whether or not Nichole has lied is irrelevant; she has seized the power of the word, and his word, the word of the father (again, Sam's and Mitch's), is ineffectual. Sam's repeated abuses of his masculine role as patriarch is turned against him.
However, Nichole's ultimate power play, like Zoe's, is flawed. She believes that asserting her voice with her deposition will enable a return to a prior state of innocence. Her decision to end the lawsuit is partially rooted in the hope that, despite the irremovable mark of incest, they "could become a regular family again. Husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, all of us trusting one another, with no secrets" (p. 199). The belief in this possibility is played out after the deposition, when Sam and Nichole go for ice cream cones, and Nichole, feeling triumphant in her father's obvious regret, decides that "All of us together, the whole family" would attend the town fair as they had in the past, so that "everyone will see us together" (Banks, 1991, p. 220). Indeed, this is what happens. As a survivor, she and her family are received with celebration at the fair. Yet, as readers, we can see that the Burnells all together at the end of the novel are a sham, a hollow, corroded version of the American family, just as they were before the accident.
At first, this scene seems to suggest that what has been lost--the "regular" American family as well as Nichole's innocence and childhood--like the children killed in the bus accident, cannot be recovered. However, this interpretation strikes me as inadequate. Nichole's desire to "become a regular family again," to return to the upstanding picture-perfect family that neighbors first described to Mitch, is inherently false and empty. There can be no "again," no return, because this family never existed. Nichole knows this, though she deliberately resists the knowledge. The secret she shares with her father is still a secret, and now it has been compounded by the secret of her lie about the accident. The Burnells' existence as a "regular family" was not lost; it was always just an image, reified by a general consensus to believe in it, which is why an audience is necessary for affirmation.
Recognizing Nichole's willingly mistaken understanding of that which never was as that which has been lost reveals a provocative implication of the novel. I've argued that Banks correlates the loss of children in the accident to the decline of the American family, which in turn is linked to the loss of viable models of masculinity and fatherhood. But can we believe that these models really existed? Are we supposed to? What, in fact, has been lost? Banks grieves the degradation and denigration of American masculinity as a cornerstone of American society, necessary for the preservation of the family and for the care of our children, and through them our future. At the same time, however, I detect a subtle destabilization of the very premise of fallen American masculinity upon which this entire dynamic rests, an unsurprising subtext in a novel that pivots on uncertainty and ambiguity.
In moments such as the final image of the Burnells at the town fair, discussed above, an intimation of doubt surfaces. Perhaps what we've been reading as loss in relation to effective father figures, as with the "regular" family, is more imagined than real. What are we hearkening back to--Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver? Historian Annette Atkins (2001), in her study of 19th century sibling relationships through written correspondence, argues that the American collective memory of the family is a romanticized version of the family based more on our present unconscious wishes, longing, and fears than on historical fact, which suggests remarkable differences between families throughout the past. Atkins, nonetheless, acknowledges that this nostalgic vision of the "traditional" American family "has a powerful emotional and political currency" (p. 172)--something we can recognize not only in the characters of The Sweet Hereafter but perhaps also in ourselves as readers of the novel.
At a deeper level of reading, Banks's, our own, and our society's problematic conflation of loss and absence, a problematic theorized by Dominic La Capra (1999) in "Trauma, Absence, Memory," is at work in The Sweet Hereafter. The children killed in the bus accident have surely been lost, but their definite loss, through metaphoric association, blurs our recognition that what we are experiencing as lost or damaged in masculinity and fatherhood is actually a lack, something that never existed in the ideal form we mourn. As La Capra explains, lack indicates "a felt need or a deficiency; it refers to something that ought to be there but is missing" and is often falsely correlated with loss (p. 703). So when we experience dissatisfaction and unease with the state of our world or ourselves, we invest our desires and our hopes for redemption in nostalgic delusions located in a mythologized past; thus, we convert what is missing into something we once had but has now been stripped from us. Loss is less discomfiting than lack because if we can believe we once possessed what is missing, then we can hope for its return. The result is a limitless and futile yearning to recover what never was.
In Billy Ansel's chapter, the text nods several times toward the elusive line between loss and absence and voices the possibility that what is presented as the loss of a structure of family resting upon a strong masculine father figure may not be loss at all. Billy's failure as a father is not located in the problematic archetype of the soldier alone but, Banks hints (in limited ways), also in his dearth of role models. Billy's own father, who abandoned the family when Billy was only twelve, taught Billy nothing he could use in becoming a man. Instead Billy deliberately constructed himself as the strong silent type who, even before the war, was emotionally vacant, in opposition to his dream-talking, promise-making father who never made good. Even God, whom a priest at the funeral for the deceased children describes as a Father who had taken the children for himself, provides a perverse version of fatherhood.
In addition, a single comment by Billy suggests that traumatic rupture (the Vietnam War or the accident) is not the only factor inhibiting productive masculinity. Billy speaks of being "broken" or "weakened," not necessarily in Jamaica or Vietnam but perhaps "in the womb, or even earlier" (Banks, 1991, p. 54). This statement suggests the possibility of an intrinsic flaw in masculinity, something inherently lacking or limited in being male. Even before the Vietnam War and the women's movement and all the social shake-ups of the late twentieth century, fatherhood was not secure and entirely positive. Not even the supreme Father can be relied upon. Maybe there can be no ideal version of masculinity or fatherhood. But if there is no solid model of masculinity and fatherhood to return to, then how can we hope to protect our children and our future? This is the question that seduces us back to the nostalgic belief that there was a better model once upon a time. For, return and restoration seem more concrete and less frightening than the prospect of creating something new.
The insistent drive toward an impossible return to a falsely idealized past plays out in The Sweet Hereafter in the demolition derby scene at the town fair. This scene not only provides resolution to the main narrative of the bus accident and its after-effects, but it also intersects meaningfully with explorations of the anxiety surrounding families and fatherhood with which Banks engages throughout the novel. The demolition derby, as Fried and Frolik (1995) argue in their interpretation of the scene, enacts a ritual of redemption and return that brings the accident/lawsuit plot to closure, but it is clearly not about the definite loss of the children, which Banks reiterates through numerous narrators, can never be returned. I aver, then, that the sense of closure achieved is created in response to the newly felt absence made present by the accident--a lack of security for the American family, a shattering of the belief that a father can and should protect his children from all harm. This awakened awareness of lack, converted into loss and entangled with the bus accident, is what the town aims to rid itself of through the ritual of the demolition derby.
In this scene, Delores attends the derby, despite being shunned from town since the accident and without knowing about Nichole's testimony, because she assumes that enough time has passed for the town to have mourned. They "would once again be free to act toward [her and her husband, Abbott] like the dear friends and neighbors they have always been" (Banks, 1991, p. 223). She, like Nichole and everyone else there, is nostalgically longing for return. However, when Delores and Abbott arrive, in contrast to previous years, no one, except a drunk, demoralized Billy Ansel, offers to help Delores lift Abbott, relegated to a wheel chair after a stroke decades earlier. Once Billy lets slip to Delores how Nichole had become a hero for destroying the lawsuits by stating that Delores was speeding, attention turns to the action on the demolition course where "Boomer," Delores's old station wagon and first school bus, had been revived and entered in the derby by one of Billy's employees. The crowd cheers with communal vitriol as the other drivers single out Boomer for repeated battering. After applauding the appearance of Nichole, the town now revels in the metonymic punishment of Delores. When, however, Boomer emerges a survivor of these attacks and battles back to win the derby, the crowd rallies to cheer its victory. At the end of the round, Delores begins to descend the grandstand step by step with Abbott's wheelchair, and several young men, drained of their anger, intercede to lift Abbott easily down the bleachers.
Essentially Delores is sacrificed as a scapegoat to purge the town of its guilt, anger, and fear and, in doing so, to redeem themselves for their pettiness, greed, and secrets. They want to restore their town to a sense of community, goodness, and belief in the natural order of things, but in order to affect belief in such a return, someone must be held accountable. As LaCapra (1999) explains, "one assumes that there was (or at least could be) some original unity, wholeness, security or identity, which others have ruined, polluted, or contaminated and thus made 'us' lose. Therefore, to regain it one must somehow get rid of or eliminate those others--or perhaps that sinful other in oneself' (p. 707). The town finds more peace than Mitch in their belief that they have indeed found the "something" or someone responsible for the loss of their children. And through the punishment of that something/one, the town experiences a cathartic cleansing that enables them to come together, or at least to believe that they have.
The sense of unity and order restored, though, is not truly either, for the cause of the accident was not Delores's speeding. The cause of the accident--if there is one beyond the caprice of the universe--remains unknowable. The moral pollution and guilt that endangers the children of the town did not originate with the accident. And the town neither forgives nor reintegrates Delores fully. She is only superficially integrated and only because she has already been punished via Boomer. She can return to the town but only if she accepts her scapegoat position. She rejects this compromise. She no longer yearns for return, no longer believes in the comforting delusions that reunite the rest of Sam Dent.
More germane to my particular argument about gender anxiety in the novel, the demolition derby is also a performative return to a belief in masculinity and its foundational role in American society. The demolition derby is a male arena for a testosterone-driven spectacle of deliberate violence that works the crowd into a frenzy. Boomer, which brings the feminine into the arena through association with Delores, as a former school bus, also represents the children of the town. I propose that it is the connection between the feminine and the child, embodied elsewhere in the novel in daughters, that is truly at issue and correlates Boomer with the supposed vulnerable and weak members of society who rely upon strong, positive figures of masculinity for provision and protection and who have been most harmed by the diminishment of fatherhood. To be clear, I am not arguing that Boomer is being attacked to purge the feminine and the child from town. Quite on the contrary, what is being cheered in Boomer's pummeling and celebrated in the ability to fight its way back to the top is the destruction of weakness, the cleansing of a failure to live up to a perceived responsibility to protect. The demolition derby and Boomer evoke the failure of fathers redeemed in a display of strength, aggression, and surmounting adversity.
It would be irresponsible to end without addressing Delores Driscoll's more complex role in the novel, so I will attempt to do so briefly, though her chapters diverge from the more astounding parallel juxtaposition of father-daughter narratives embedded in each of the other chapters upon which I've based my argument. As I mention in my introduction, Delores is the only narrator with two chapters, chapters that significantly open and close the novel. As a narrator, Delores is our first introduction to Sam Dent and to the accident, and she is given the last words by Banks. Delores provides us with descriptions of what, through her eyes, Sam Dent used to be--a close-knit, working-class American town of "dear friends and neighbors"--and what, through different eyes disillusioned by the accident and the demolition derby, it has become by the town fair. As a character, she is significant as the scapegoat of the town, blamed for loss and lack, and as primary mother figure in the novel (by virtue not so much of her two sons as of the maternal characterization of bus driver responsible for all the children of the town), thereby rendering her essential to both the central plot and the submerged narratives of family. There are different ways to read Delores in relation to Banks's exploration of family and gender, but none, in my estimation, is convincing.
One interpretation might be that as woman/mother-figure, Delores is not simply being scapegoated for the accident but also for the feminist challenge to masculine roles she could be said to represent. In this interpretation, Delores must be beaten down in order for masculinity and fatherhood to be restored. This is an arguable alternative reading of what occurs at the demolition derby. However, I find this interpretation does not align with textual evidence. Delores, by nature of her situation and sensibility, can be accused of usurping male territory. She does, in fact, support her family financially and perform her own maintenance on the bus rather than bringing it to Billy's garage. But she became breadwinner by force when Abbott's stroke debilitated him, and she remains a doting, adoring wife who lives her by husband's word and opinions (or at least claims to; since she's the only one who understands him, one never knows). Her work as a bus driver began as her motherly duty to drive her own sons to school and only over two decades and at the behest of the school board developed into a full-fledged career. Performing her own general maintenance on the bus is more knotty, but while it is raised by both Billy and Mitch, the issue is quickly dismissed. No one suspects a mechanical failure of brakes due to Delores's upkeep; this never becomes an issue for the lawsuit. It isn't treated as important enough to be interpreted as a major transgression of gender roles. Though Delores is not characterized as traditionally (middle-class) feminine, arguing that she is a representative of the liberated feminist of the women's movement, which must be purged to resuscitate masculinity and patriarchy, would require exaggeration or manipulation of Banks's depiction of her life circumstances and motivations.
Another possible interpretation is that through his depiction of Delores as mother-figure who, even if she hasn't caused the accident through irresponsible actions, is ultimately responsible as the adult caretaker who failed to protect her charges, Banks suggests that ideals and efficacy of motherhood are also deteriorating as a result of changing gender roles and contributing to the crumbling social institution of family so essential to our future. For this reading, I would emphasize Delores's joke, invented to amuse and unite the children through the humorous naming of her bus as "Shoe," that she is "the old woman who lived in a shoe." Banks, thus, alludes to the nursery rhyme, in which the old woman, overwhelmed and without means, cares for her little ones as best she can but ultimately can do little more than prepare the way toward their inevitable demise. (9) Delores gets to know each of her riders, takes precautions with her bus, establishes a "safe space" for the children to enjoy themselves, and seems to genuinely care for them in the short time she spends with them each day. And yet, because of a dog or a distracted mind, an inadequate guard rail or a watery sandpit, Delores cannot prevent their deaths. Yes, this puts forward the notion that a mother alone is not capable of adequately protecting so many children, the children of our town or our nation. But doesn't that bring us back to the need for a strong father-figure and the problem being his absence? That ideal motherhood is besieged by the untenable demands put on the mother in the wake of imperiled fatherhood?
While this interpretation is somewhat more convincing than the first, the evidence for it seems weak. Delores is the only sustained model of the maternal in the novel. The others are marginalized and depicted almost entirely through the perspective of male characters. (10) Fundamentally, I think Banks is less concerned with motherhood and any thematic commentary on the maternal is less cohesive than the carefully structured exploration of the paternal the novel enacts. His attention is focused on fatherhood as the cornerstone of the family and the family as the cornerstone of our society. As a result of this deliberate exploration of masculinity and fatherhood, femininity and mother hood, though inextricably bound as part of an ideological binary, remains tangential and does not include Delores in a thoroughly conceived manner.
Nonetheless, in the way that the treatment of diminished fatherhood and endangered children can be read as a blurring of the distinction between loss and absence in the novel, Banks's use of Delores to end the novel is integral to my argument. The novel ends not with Abbott's chair being carried down the grandstand (an act often interpreted as a gesture of forgiveness and reintegration) but with Delores driving away from the lights of the town fair and into the darkness. She asserts a shared state of isolation that unites her with the dead and lost children of America and a recognition that return to former wholeness (or perceived wholeness) is impossible. Speaking of herself and the children, she says: "it was as if we were all citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in the sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, whether they memorialized us or despised us, whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs not ours" (Banks, 1991, p. 254). Intimately touched by tragedy and betrayed by her townspeople, Delores refuses to fall back into delusions of redemption, order, and salvation. She chooses the indefinite darkness of a new beginning over the glaring dishonesty of reaching back toward that which never was.
In The Sweet Hereafter, Banks forces us to confront the unthinkable tragedy of "the lost children of our town" and evokes an anxiety over lost American manhood and its imagined consequences for our future. Finally, however, whether Banks intends it or not, the novel subverts its own conclusion as to the threat to our society. It ends, not with a cry for the return to the men of yesteryear, but with a turn away from the false hope of return. For we as readers detect that models of masculinity and fatherhood themselves are not lost, but having never truly existed, our collective belief in the idea of these models and what they represent are what is lost, and, as a result, the order and stability that this collective cultural belief provides is imperiled. Thus it is absence, experienced as loss, which provides the emotional pull of the narrative: a longing for restoration of what has been taken away, the children, yes, but also in this submerged narrative, the mythologies of idealized American masculinity, fatherhood, and family. The ending points us away from anxiety over lost models of American masculinity and toward a hope best articulated by Kimmel (1996) that we, as a culture, "accept the responsibility to consider other possibilities, other visions of manhood" (p. 333). Ironically perhaps, it is Delores Driscoll, the representative of the female and the maternal in the novel, that exemplifies this embrace of unknown possibilities as she drives off into the darkness prepared to start a new life outside the deluded yet familiar comforts of Sam Dent.
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(1) Banks's fiction takes place in New England and the Caribbean and many places in between. His regional New England work is complimented most strikingly by recent works such as Cloudsplitter, The Darling (2004), and The Reserve (2008), which respectively tackle the stories of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, moneyed New York on holiday in the Adirondacks during the Great Depression, and a former radical American activist looking back on her life in Liberia. Notable protagonists who diverge from the type I describe are John Brown, the Haitian mother Vanise whose narrative interacts with New Hampshire oil-burner repairman Bob Dubois's in Continental Drift, and 67 year old Hannah Musgrove in The Darling as well as, though to a lesser degree, Nichole and Delores in The Sweet Hereafter.
(2) In his book-length study of Banks's work, Robert Niemi groups The Sweet Hereafter with Affliction (1989) and Rule of the Bone (1995) to demonstrate that this concern is a unifying theme in Banks's writing at this time. Affliction explores the effects of childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father on a working-class New England man. In Rule of the Bone, an alienated teen runs away from his broken home and sexually abusive step-father.
(3) Niemi presents this quotation from a speech Banks gave at St. Michaels College after the book was published. Banks's sentiment anticipates public fear that explodes in the 1990s and can be seen in examples such as David Blakenhorn's Fatherless America (1994), which argued the danger of a developing "culture of fatherlessness" that devalued fatherhood as a social role and, in his view, has led to higher incidences of crime, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and child poverty; and Vice President Dan Quayle's attack on television sitcom Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers" when the main character decided to pursue single motherhood in 1992.
(4) For a discussion of the changes Egoyan made to Banks's narrative for the screenplay, see Gruben (2001).
(5) Jeffords traces, in popular culture from 1967-1987, how the "veteran-as-victim mythology" developed and by the eighties Vietnam veterans were commonly seen as victims of multiple sources. Her argument goes farther to suggest convincingly that through contemporary cultural representations, Vietnam veterans come to represent all men, or at least white men, and cast them as victims rather than oppressors, thereby mobilizing and becoming a touchstone in the regeneration of American masculinity. She writes: "primarily the white male was used as an emblem for a fallen and emasculated American male, [...] No longer the oppressor, men came to be seen, primarily through the imagery of the Vietnam veteran, as themselves oppressed" (pp. 168-169). This premise helps to situate Banks's portrayal of Billy as Vietnam vet simultaneously representative of a more generally fallen American masculinity.
(6) The argument that Billy provides an alternative form of fatherhood is more convincingly made in reference to Egoyan's film adaptation (see Weese, 2002), which eliminates inclusion of the episode involving Jessica in Jamaica. In fact, Egoyan eliminates Billy's narrative role, limiting narrative perspective to Mitch for the first half of the movie and to Nichole for the second half, and thereby deprives viewers of the insight into Billy's emotional and psychological life offered to Banks's readers.
(7) The chorus goes: "No cares have I to grieve me/No pretty little girls to deceive me/I'm happy as a lark believe me/As we go rolling, rolling home/Rolling home/Rolling home/By the light of the silvery moo-oo-on/Happy is the day when we line up for our pay/As we go rolling, rolling home." The final stanza of the song asserts "I've got no pence/Jolly jolly no pence/I've got no pence to last me all my life/I've got no pence to spend/And no pence to lend/And no pence to send home to my wife-poor wife."
(8) Boyd quotes Egoyan as saying: "There was no way I could depict the incest in the way it was in the book because it had become a cliche." For analysis of Egoyan's treatment of incest in adaptation, see in addition to Boyd, Gruben (2006), Weese (2002), and May and Ferri (2002).
(9) The version of the nursery rhyme to which I refer is an early version, including a lesser known final line, that was published by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie in Infant Institutes (1797): "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe./She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;/ She gave them some broth without any bread/Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed./Then out went th' old woman to bespeak 'em a coffin,/And when she came back, she found 'em all a-loffeing."
(10) Billy's wife Lydia is exalted in memory but long dead. Reena, who is presented as smothering her meek son Sean, killed in the bus crash along with Billy's twins, is more significant in what she allows us to learn about Billy through their affair than as a character in her own right. Wanda Otto, the pregnant mother of adopted son Bear, is presented flatly through the lenses of other characters as an over-sexualized hippie artist and fierce litigant desiring revenge. Depicted through Nichole's eyes, Mary Burnell is fat, weak, and insecure, but this perspective is tainted by Nichole's violated girlhood, her father's predominating viewpoint in the home, and her resentment at her mother's blindness to her abuse.
CHRISTA BAIADA (a)
(a) Christa Baiada, English, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY.
Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Christa Baiada, English, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY, 199 Chambers Street, N710, New York, NY 10007. Email: email@example.com
the people of Sam Dent are not unique. We've all lost our children. It's like all the children of America are dead to us. Just look at them, for God's sake-violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcotized in front of the TV. In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. (Banks, 1991, p. 99)
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