Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Reserve by Russell Banks




(Highly Recommended)




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The title of Russell Banks’ latest novel, The Reserve, refers to a private refuge for a few wealthy families in the Adirondacks. The novel is set during the Depression and is packed with contrasts: the rich and the impoverished; truth and lies; faithfulness and betrayal; exposure and hiding. Readers will be attracted by some characters and repelled by others. Along the way, we keep turning the pages, as Banks carefully unfolds his plot and deepens our understanding of each character. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 31-33, describing the protagonist, an artist who lives at the edge of the reserve, and refers to other key characters:


At six, well before the rest of the family woke, Jordan Groves left his bed. He shaved and dressed for work in loose, paint-spattered dungarees and sweatshirt and came down the wide front stairs to the living room and went into the kitchen and let the dogs out and the cats in. Most days he carried a chunk of cheese and some bread directly to his studio and made a pot of coffee there and sat contemplatively for an hour in front of yesterday's picture before setting to work on it. It was the best time of the day for him, best for thinking, best for work. Today, however, he lingered at the house. He built a fire in the kitchen stove, let the two dogs back inside and fed them and the four cats, and reloaded the wood box—normally Alicia and the boys' morning chores—and waited for the others to come down.

Around seven thirty Wolf, still in pajamas, padded down the back stairs from the children's wing and headed straight to the icebox for milk, when he realized that his father sat in the rocker by the bay window, looking out. Characteristically somber, the boy said good morning, and Jordan Groves smiled, said, "Hello, son," and, continuing to look out the window, resumed his thoughts. He was replaying the events of the previous evening, trying to recall exactly what was said and done and by whom and why. He was pretty sure he understood Dr. Cole and knew what his intentions and needs were. And the others he didn't linger over: they were all who and what they seemed to be. The girl, though, Vanessa Von Heidenstamm, was pretty much a mystery to him. She was not who and what she seemed. But the one who was most mysterious to him, the one whose intentions and needs and behavior he understood not at all, was the man himself, Jordan Groves. Why had he taken her up in his airplane and let her fly it so dangerously close to the mountains at night? And why had he left her there at the pond, left her to walk alone back to her family's camp at the Second Lake?

The view from the window gave on to the Tamarack River where it swerved away from the house and grounds into a broad oxbow and widened and ran north for three hundred yards of smooth, slow-running, deep water—more a pond here than a river. Directly in the artist's line of sight was the wooden riv­erside hangar he had built the summer he bought his airplane. Four years later, he still liked the sturdy, wide, four-square look of the structure. He had come in last night by moonlight reflected off the river. He had winched the airplane out of the water and onto the ramp and into the boathouse, and by the time he got up to the house, Alicia and the boys were already in bed asleep. Jordan stayed downstairs in his study for a while and read the new Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle, and, as was his habit, didn't go up to bed himself until midnight, and when he slid in next to her, Alicia did not appear to waken, which relieved him.

Wolf was the younger of the boys, just turned six. His brother, whose name was Bear, was eight. When his sons were born, Jordan had insisted on naming them for animals he admired—despite considerable resistance from their mother and her Austrian family, who said it might be all right for red Indians to name their children after animals, but not for white people. If Bear had been a girl, Jordan would have named her Puma. Wolf he would have named Peregrine. He said he wanted his children to be inspired all their lives to live up to what they were called, and since he was a devout atheist he wasn't going to name them after saints. "No Christian names," he declared, and no family names. Aside from Jordan himself and Alicia, there was no one in either family worth emulating. If when they became adults his sons wished to go by their middle names, which as a compromise had been drawn from Alicia's and his genealogies, that would be all right with him. But he was sure it wouldn't happen. By then they will have become their names, he said. Just as, for better or worse, he had become Jordan, and their mother had become Alicia.


The reference to thinking about Vanessa as not being who and what she seemed turns out to be quite prescient. Banks is a fine writer, and he captured both time, place and characters with skill. The Reserve is a pleasure to read, and is highly recommended.


Steve Hopkins, March 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2008 issue of Executive Times


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