Russell Banks: 1940-2023 (Actually, Immortal)

Russell Banks (photo credit Bryan Mann, NPR, 10 Jan., 2021)

Browsing the “Books and Arts” section of the Wall Street Journal today (matutinal guilty pleasure #2, close on the heels of “Opinion”), I glanced at a small headline in the lower left-hand corner, revealing the death of Russell Banks. I didn’t read the article, was, instead, so powerfully reminded of my first encounter with the writings of Russell Banks, that I opened Apple Messages and typed to a dear friend and colleague in the English Department, “Russell Banks has died.” My use of the present perfect tense was based on my assumption that Banks died yesterday. I included a brief snippet of what would become this post, with a link attached. It was only later, after deciding that this event was momentous enough to commemorate on my blog, that I learned my mistake: Russell Banks actually died on January 7. It hardly matters. He is immortal because of the personal story I am about to tell—and the short story I am about to share with you.

Thanks to the miracles of the Internet, I can tell you exactly when I first discovered Russell Banks—January 3, 2003, which was coincidentally, I realize, almost 20 years to the day before he died earlier this month. I was driving home from somewhere, probably work or, more likely, Bushiban, the coffee shop where two friends and I met daily at 4:37 (it’s a long story!). I was listening, as was my wont before “Woke” changed my habits, to WUNC, the local NPR affiliate.  I apparently wasn’t paying much attention because I remember suddenly perking up my ears mid-sentence, fortunately near the beginning of this life-changing experience. Because yes, literature can—and has, often—changed (broadened deepened, enriched) my life.

What I heard was the quiet voice of a man telling, reminiscing, reading—I didn’t know which at the time. I was enraptured. I listened for the few miles remaining before I arrived at home. And then, despite the chilly winter weather of early January in the piedmont of North Carolina, I sat in the car in the driveway for another half hour or so, listening to the quiet voice of Russell Banks finish reading his beautiful and poignant “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.”

I immediately bought and devoured two of Banks’s novels, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction. Both had also been made into movies by that time, and I soon managed to watch both on DVD. All four were memorable in their own way. But “Sarah Cole”—well, she was momentous enough to inspire me to write this strange blog post two decades after I heard her small but nonetheless tragic story, read in the quiet voice of her creator.

With thanks again to the miracles of the Information Age, I can offer to you, my readers, a gift of gratitude for the life and works of Russell Banks. The story I love is available to read online in The Missouri Review, where it was first published on June 1, 1984.  If you’re a fan of YouTube (I’m not, particularly, but it has its niche value), you can actually listen to the story there, in four parts; I leave the search to you if that’s your cup of tea. But why use the purloined version when the original is so close at hand? Yes, dear reader, you can actually listen to Russell Banks reading the story exactly as I heard him more than twenty years ago. Please do. And many, many thanks to Ira Glass and This American Life for my original encounter and for allowing me to share it with you.  Full disclaimer: This reading is an excerpted version of the story, but since it replicates my own experience, I encourage you to listen—and then, of course, read the full version linked above.

Please make yourself a cup of tea (something stronger would also and definitely be appropriate), insert your AirPods if you have them, and bask in the wonders that only literature can offer: “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.”


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One Response to Russell Banks: 1940-2023 (Actually, Immortal)

  1. Ren says:

    Well, thank you for introducing Russell Banks to me. I just finished “Sarah Cole…” and now want to devour everything else this man wrote. And clearly, I’m also going through a bunch of what you have written here…also delightful.

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