Hamilton Stark, by Russell Banks

This early 1978 novel appears to be what is called metafiction. It is certainly Banks luxuriating in the possibilities of fiction. It is also a young author applying all that he has learned about the craft of fiction, as well as much of what he has learned about human relations. One senses that Banks is attempting to stretch the parameters of the novel. Or at least how far he himself can go.

The result is a novel that pays as much attention to technique as to content. That is, an interesting portrait of a middle-aged New Hampshire loner is probed from a variety of geographical, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical viewpoints. Not to mention that author Banks is writing a novel about an author who is writing a novel about a local named A, whom he calls Hamilton Stark in his book, and then learns that the subject’s daughter is writing her own book about her father, calling him Alvin Stock. And from her book Bank’s narrator appropriates much of his own content.            

Nor to mention that the narrator keeps confiding to the reader how he is constructing his novel, how he will provide certain information later, for example. Which in turn is Banks confiding how he is constructing what we are reading. As a result, we are often reading about these characters twice removed, a narrative about a narrative.            

The novel begins with the narrator calling unexpectedly on an old friend he calls A—not wishing to identify him, apparently New England reticence. He does not find A, but does find his car with three bullet holes in the driver’s side window. The rest of the novel consists of various characters speculating about what has happened to A, and in the process creating a portrait of A.            

Banks hints at the elusiveness of this novel by having his narrator immediately postulate three possible explanation of what has happened to his friend; and this, he says, is what prompts the narrator to start his novel. And like many a novice novelist, the narrator thinks it helpful to explain A’s (Stark’s) backstory. Thus, we read the geography and history of his town, then about his ancestors, then the story of his various relationships with his father and mother, his daughter, and finally his five wives. None of this advances the story of A’s fate, of course, and we soon realize that it is really the portrait of the missing man, Stark, that interests Banks.

Indeed, the remainder of this novel is that portrait, that backstory of a man who was selfish, incommunicative, and a loner. And hated by everyone, starting with his 26-year-old daughter Rochelle. As the narrator learns that Rochelle has already attempted to write her own novel about her father, about an Alvin Stock, as he appropriates some of her work with her approval, and as the novel delves further and further into Stark’s backstory, a structural problem surfaces. The story keeps moving backward, rather than forward. And this backstory is largely narrated, rather than dramatized, Which is a pity, for the dramatized sections, with their movement and dialogue, are particularly good.

Of course, this narrative (rather than dramatic) approach allows Banks to have considerable control over how he presents the man’s portrait. He can offer the salient points, without paying attention to the chronological order. Moreover, his narrator frequently tells the reader there is additional information he will reveal later; but if this is in order to create suspense, this strategy did not work for me. Also, inhibiting my interest are a few lists, the most obvious being the chapter, 100 Selected, Uninteresting Things Done and Said by Hamilton Stark. All these lists are simply Banks toying with his subject, and showing off to the reader; and in this particular chapter I skipped the last 75 uninteresting things.

What is interesting, in the absence of discovering what has happened to Stark, are his relationships with his father, his five wives, and his daughter. None of them like him, for he has treated them crudely or unfairly. But the narrator does not feel the same way about him. He admires Stark for being in control of his own life and enjoying that life—his guns, his drinking, his women.

Later, through the narrator’s friendship with a character named C, we probe abstractly, and a little too deeply for me, the intricacy of the relationship between men and women, as exemplified by the life of Stark. This appears to be the author expounding on his own knowledge, as much as it is the characters probing their understanding of human relationships as they apply to Stark. The idea is that women try to raise in men feelings of guilt, and this explains the attitude of Stark’s mother toward him. In fact, Banks gives this theory an ironic twist, when his narrator has an affair with Rochelle, and she then gives him a sense of guilt for using the material from her novel that she had previously agreed to let him do. But one cannot ignore that this irony is developed in a footnote that runs eight pages—as it shows Banks again playing with structure in order to squeeze in a mere sidelight.

While this portrait of small-town New Hampshire life is quite well done, this novel also lacks for me an emotional impact. Because it has been conceived on an intellectual level. This is revealed by its emphasis on both structure and the narrative technique—an approach that interposes that second plane of reality between the reader and Stark—a plane that hinders the reader from identifying with the emotions of Stark, or even that of the narrator. The inconclusive ending also re-enforces this impression, as if the author does not care what happens to Stark, that his point has already been made.

Of course, Banks might reply that the purpose of the novel is the portrait, and not what actually happened to the subject. But for me, that reveals an author too much immersed in his craft, and not enough in his characters. It is as if he understands the complexity of human beings, but is not yet able to, or else does not yet care to, convert that complexity into richly dramatic events. (April, 2014)

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