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Interview with Russell Banks

BROADCAST: 1980 | DURATION: 00:52:30

Transcript

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Russell Banks "A dog. It was a dog I saw for certain. I thought I saw. It was snowing pretty hard by then, and you can see things in the snow that aren't there or aren't exactly there. But you also can't see some of the things that are there. So that by God, when you do see something, you react anyhow, erring on the distaff side if you get my drift. That's my training as a driver, but it's also my temperament as a mother of two grown sons and wife to an invalid, and that way when I'm wrong, at least I'm wrong on the side of the angels."

Studs Terkel And that's how the book opens. The voice. There are four key voices in this book. The book by Russell Banks, who covers what Joseph Coates, the literary critic of the "Tribune" describes as "covering Third World America." You may recall that Russell Banks wrote that powerful book "Affliction", "Continental Drift", and covers that underside of our life in certain small communities, and is in its primary New England towns, and the book is called "The Sweet Hereafter", the new book. "The Sweet Hereafter", and Harper Collins the publishers, and that very opening, there's a woman who's telling a story there. Dolores Driscoll, this middle-aged woman with this husband with a stroke and grown kids away, she's the driver of a school bus.

Russell Banks She's one of those decent, intelligent, patient kind of people who loves children and you don't feel too anxious about putting your kids into her hands.

Studs Terkel And she drove this bus, school bus as she's done for years in a town called Sam Dent, we'll come to that town in a minute, and now how -- and she thought she saw a dog and she swerved and the bus turns over, and

Russell Banks Ends up in a frozen -- a water-filled sandpit, and 14 of the children in the town are killed and a number are injured. And of course in a small town, this basically cuts a whole segment of the population away from it.

Studs Terkel And this is what happens to the town from now on and hers is the first of four voices we hear. There are four voices. Dolores Driscoll. Did she drive too fast? Was she careful? What caused the accident? And of course the tragedy of the town, and the families affected in the town. She's one of the voices. Then there's a guy named Billy Ansel.

Russell Banks Right. Vietnam vet. He's sort of a local hero, he's one of those guys who's behaved well since he was a kid, a custodial kind of guy, you know, the oldest child in a family that's been abandoned by its father and takes care of business. Field commissioned in Vietnam, comes back and only hires Vietnam vets for, at his garage. And a widower, his wife has died of cancer, so he's the object of enormous sympathy in the town. And then he has two children, twins, 6-year-old twins who are (coughs) excuse me, who are killed in the accident.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Billy Ansel is the guy, very strong in every way. He helps the vets. He has this body shop, auto body shop

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel A garage. And so he's one. He's the second voice, Dolores Driscoll who drove the bus, then there's the voice of a guy, a lawyer, a trial lawyer who handles cases, much like Gerry Spence, the cowboy lawyer who defended -- who sued McGee. You know

Russell Banks For

Studs Terkel The big outfit on behalf of Karen Silkwood, sues the big ones, a number of guys like that. And who is this guy? He comes to town.

Russell Banks Yeah, he's from New York City, negligence lawyer who's come to town to put this, to really kind of organize the chaos around a negligence suit, and he provides in some important ways I think sort of the engine that drives the book, the story, I mean, it's after all a story finally, and each character picks up and carries the story forward another few notches, and when he enters it, there's an acceleration.

Studs Terkel This guy

Russell Banks In voice as well as in pacing and plot.

Studs Terkel And named Mitchell Stephens, comes out of New York, and he's not an ambulance chaser. This is the point, he's. he's, there are ambulance chasers gathered all around. He is a guy, he's got dough, but he's driven by something he calls anger.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel And we'll come to that, too. And then there's the fourth voice, the little

Russell Banks Nichole

Studs Terkel Nichole Burnett [sic - Burnell], the pretty little girl who's the homecoming queen

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel There

Russell Banks The bright 14-year-old pride of the local junior high. The other sweetheart of Sam Dent, I guess in some way, who is, who is as a result of the accident she's a paraplegic, and she carries the story through the fourth section.

Studs Terkel And Stephens the lawyer thinks she is a key figure. Well, let's start. Okay.

Russell Banks She's great. I mean, you can wheel her out in front of a jury or a judge and people will cry with pity.

Studs Terkel But we find out now, you're going to learn about the inner lives of these people. And so what sets it off is something: a key the death of children. The death of children.

Russell Banks The form of the novel, Studs, in a way is that of a deposition. Each of the characters in a sense are being deposed by, by the reader, you know, by or me the writer. So yeah, they're telling what they know to have been true that day of the accident and the events leading up to the accident and the days that follow from the accident. So each of them is, you know, is telling his or her, her story about the accident, but in doing that they tell you a lot about their own lives and circumstances and feelings and

Studs Terkel So let's stick with the first voice for the moment, Dolores Driscoll, who also closes the book, too.

Russell Banks Yeah, she brings it back around.

Studs Terkel And so but -- she talks about kids and her feelings, it's a little item about kids at play. On page 16 here, I got this one, is it -- we the same pages?

Russell Banks Yeah. No, wait a minute, we're no

Studs Terkel No, I don't think so. I got the paperback. See, I got that red mark -- just her thoughts about kids at play.

Russell Banks She says, "Because you can listen to children without fear the way you can watch puppies tumble and bite and kittens sneak up on one another and spring without worrying that they'll be hurt by it. The talk of children can be very instructive. I guess it's because they openly play at what we grownups do seriously and in secret."

Studs Terkel Yeah. See, there's the openness there. So she is easy with the kids.

Russell Banks Yeah, she loves the kids, she's trusting.

Studs Terkel And she drives by the way, this is a key to the book. She drives pretty carefully. She had -- seemingly abides by the speed limits. It's a certain drive, isn't it?

Russell Banks Yeah, same route every single day.

Studs Terkel Well, this time better describe the route and the town and some of the people

Russell Banks Yeah, her section is really designed, you know, if you went around in a school bus in a small town and picked up each of the kids with a informed school bus driver, you learn about the whole town, because you know you pick up the kids whose, whose old man is a drunk and who beats his wife and the kids come on and they're still sniffling and weepy, and then you pick up the adopted Indian kid "Bear Otto," who lives with his parents who are kind of hippie throwbacks living in a dome

Studs Terkel And they do arts and crafts

Russell Banks They do arts and crafts, and then you pick up you know the poor kids up there by the flats who all seem to have the same or similar names and who are the children of teenage children themselves and you get to know the, you know, the sociology and the family life that -- that's plays such an incredibly important

Studs Terkel The town, the New England town you know so well, where was the Currier and Ives etchings, we have those lithograph -- what are there, Currier and Ives

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel How the -- sweet the snow, the Christmas, this is -- you're talking about blue-collar town today in New England where there's a great deal of tension and joblessness.

Russell Banks Right. Right.

Studs Terkel The town that you know so well. Sam Dent is the name of the town.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel Somewhere in Maine or

Russell Banks No, this one's in upstate New York in the Adirondacks, yeah, but it's a cross -- you know, you can drive to -- you don't have to go very far from here to find those towns in America today, where unemployment's 20 percent or it's seasonal, and where people are unable to live in, you know, in fancy condominiums but instead tar-paper shacks or patched-together houses or trailers or whatever.

Studs Terkel These are the towns you know so well.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel 'Cause all your other books dealt with this very theme, towns out of which you came.

Russell Banks Yeah, New Hampshire.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And so here is Dolores Driscoll, and she's always followed -- Billy Ansel, the town hero, lives by himself, bitter his young wife died, widower, and now the two twins of whom he's proud. He follows the car a lot

Russell Banks Yeah, it's a kind of a superstition. I actually used to do this myself when I put my kids on the bus in the morning. I'd just follow them in and they would wave out the rear window, you know, and I'd drive along behind 'em and then the bus would take off and pull into the school and I'd go on to my work. And I gave him that gesture, it seemed like an important gesture for a man alone to give toward his children. You know, a kind of loving "See you later" in the morning.

Studs Terkel Now Dolores' husband, old -- their kids are grown up. This guy, he can't tell, he's got this stroke, speech is difficult.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel But he's got that extra touch of insight, doesn't

Russell Banks Yeah, yeah. Well yeah, but we depend on her version of him, I mean, she's quoting and paraphrasing all the time because nobody else can quite understand him. So he's sort of a Delphic oracle figure in a way. He utters aphorisms and little bits of wisdom, but they -- but she has the one who has to say it and articulate it for him. It's almost as if he was speaking in Russian or something.

Studs Terkel She's the interpreter.

Russell Banks She's the interpreter.

Studs Terkel Sometimes

Russell Banks So it's not always clear whether he's actually said this or, she's heard it and said it. Right.

Studs Terkel And so by the -- what did happen? Describe the accident. There's a guardrail.

Russell Banks She comes up over the top of a hill and it's the last roll down toward town and the sky opens up and the land falls away and she says, "It's like Wyoming or Montana," and this is of course in the winter and there's a light sort of curtain of snow falling and she thinks she sees a dog, or it might be a deer. She said, "It even could be a child in a red snowsuit," and she's, she's, she's in that position we've all been in where you think you see something and you dri-- and you'd either drive straight on through it and you maybe will hit a deer, a dog or a child, or you cut the wheel to the right, and to avoid what may or may not be there, and you might lose control of the vehicle at that point. She loses control of the vehicle and it goes over, breaks through the guardrail, down the side, into and through the ice of this [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel So the town is not blaming her. They know her. She's one of the town.

Russell Banks Yeah, they know life, too. They know that life is full of these events that seem to have no cause.

Studs Terkel Isn't that what is driving Billy Ansel crazy? Billy Ansel went through Vietnam, guys lost, does, guys killed in violent fights. And here's a crazy accident.

Russell Banks Right. And he says, wife dies, and then he says, "Why, then I realize death touched me, it wasn't just something that happened over there in Vietnam, it was also something that happened in domestic life here, you were, you weren't safe anywhere," and then when his kids are lost, then he feels himself he's lost. He enters a kind of, well, where he says, "I only felt alive most of -- the only time I felt alive was when I was with the children who had died." So he goes and stands by the bus and hears their voices.

Studs Terkel So when that car, that bus, which by the way she calls, Dolores Driscoll calls it "Boomer."

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel It's known affectionately.

Russell Banks The first one, the first one was called "Boomer," that, when she had her own station wagon, she started carrying -- carting kids around, she called it "Boomer" and then she -- every time she trades up, gets a bigger bus as the town grows a little bit, and as the kids have kids and so forth, she gets a bigger bus, and finally she's got a big one, a regular standard international, and she calls it "Shoe," I think that's the name she gives it, so the kids can goof with the

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Russell Banks With the bus a little bit.

Studs Terkel But that name "Boomer" figures in some

Russell Banks "Boomer" figures

Studs Terkel But I mean this wrecked bus has brought back that had destroyed Billy Ansel's garage.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel And there he hears in his own mind the voices, the kids what life's about, and he studies that bus, too. And this is where the guy comes

Russell Banks Mitchell steps out

Studs Terkel -- Mitchell

Russell Banks Stephens steps out of the

Studs Terkel shadows. Stephens, Esquire, the lawyer.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel And this guy, and he wants to talk people into suing, who will he sue, now?

Russell Banks He wants, see, that's what he's out to find out first. He's there of course at that point to take pictures of the bus before he says, "Before the evidence gets hauled away and changed." And so he wants to do that, but he's, his -- you can sue the state of New York. You might sue the town of Sam Dent. You might sue the manufacturer of the bus. You might sue anybody with deep pockets and responsibility.

Studs Terkel Because the State of New York, the guardrail looked like it was pretty weak stuff, not taken care of. We know what's happening to the superstructure of this country.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel That's another commentary in a way underneath it all, undercurrent is. We know with all the dough for the military, whatever it is, you know, we're gonna get taxed, hit the great many middle and the have-nots. And so there's no dough for roadbeds, schools, here's a guardrail.

Russell Banks Right. Rusted out.

Studs Terkel Talking to Russell Banks. The book is called "The Sweet Hereafter", and we'll come to that title in a moment, too. Harper & Collins the publishers. [pause in recording] Russell Banks and "The Sweet Hereafter". I suppose it is a kind of a religious town, I mean people

Russell Banks Yeah, I think conventionally, yeah, yeah. I mean, it's they're not -- it's not consumed with religion, but they are the, they go through the motions, and religion is still a way of organizing and structuring their lives, that thinks their family and social life and their usual rituals like marriage and birth and death.

Studs Terkel And so we come to the voice of Mitchell Stephens. These are voices we hear, talking, the same event and the same town and the same lives, just through four different

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel So

Russell Banks It's not, it's not a "Rashomon" kind of tale where you're getting four different versions of the same event and you say, "Wow, isn't reality mysterious or something." It's, they continue the story, they pick it up and take it to the next

Studs Terkel Yeah, it continues. And so Mitchell Stephens, why is he here? He's got dough. What -- he saw an item. Eighteen, how many kids were killed?

Russell Banks Fourteen kids.

Studs Terkel Fourteen kids are killed.

Russell Banks In a small town. So he's there out of rage, though.

Studs Terkel Why don't you read that, very opening, his voice. What sets him off. This is Mitchell Stephens, Esquire talking.

Russell Banks This is when you first hear him. This is the first thing you hear. "Angry, yes, I'm angry. I'd be a lousy lawyer if I weren't. I suppose it's like I've got this permanent boil on my butt and can't quite sit down. Which is not the same, you understand, as being hounded by greed, although I can see of course that it probably sometimes looked like greed to certain individuals who were not lawyers when they saw a person like me driving all the way up there to the Canadian border practically, saw me camping out in the middle of winter in a windy dingy little motel room for weeks at a time, bugging the hell out of decent people who were in the depths of despair, and just wanted to be left alone. I can understand that, but it wasn't greed that put me there." And he goes on.

Studs Terkel And then it comes back to him what did it and his anger, and he himself, about since about lost children.

Russell Banks Yeah, it circles back to his connection to his kids, his kid in particular, his daughter Zoe who's I think a 20-year-old heroin-addicted kid and he's caught in that trap of a parent who's lost his child to drugs. And so he has a sharper sense of what these other parents are enduring than he might otherwise, because that's something he's imagined now and lived through.

Studs Terkel And he gets these, he gets these calls from Zoe all the time that drive him crazy. She's gone, she's gone completely onto another planet with the drugs and she's needling him, too.

Russell Banks Oh yeah, well, she's in a rage, too. They're caught up in that awful locked embrace that a spouse or a parent of an addict gets into.

Studs Terkel He's, that's when he says, this is he's talking now to us, is when you get, when you mix conviction with rage a special kind of anger. "So I'm no victim. Victims get depressed, living the there and the then, I live in the here and -- besides the people of this town, the people of Sam Dent are not unique. We've all lost our children. It's like all the children in America are dead to us. Just look at them, for God's sake. Violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcoticized in front of the TV my lifetime something, something terrible's happened," this guy says, "That took our children away from us. I don't know if it was the Vietnam War or the sexual colonization of kids by industry or drugs or TV or divorce or what the hell it was," this is Russell Banks writing here. "I don't know what are the causes and which are the effects, but the children are gone, that I know. So trying to protect them is little more than an elaborate exercise in denial," the subject of, the theme of denial is here through it. "These religious fanatics, super patriots, they try to predict, protect their kids by turning them into schizophrenics. Episcopalians and High church Jews gratefully abandon their kids to boarding schools and divorce one another so they can get laid with impunity. The middle class grabs what it can buy and passes it on like poisoned candy on Halloween. And meanwhile, inner-city Blacks and poor whites in the boonies sell their souls with longing for what's killing everyone else's kids and wonder why they're on crack. It's too late. They're gone. We're what's left." That's what drives this guy on. So he's in this town, and now he wants to convince the various parents of the dead kids to join in a class action suit.

Russell Banks Yeah, he says rage is the only thing that'll create a future. He says, "You know, I don't know what it's going to be like when the smoke clears, but I do know this: if you're not angry enough, then you're not going to have a future. Of any kind."

Studs Terkel Yeah. It's funny, this book has all sorts of nuance implication to it outside this event, as Mitchell Stephens just saying, he said, "We're not going to be angry." Was sort of you're going -- there was a congressman named Bob Eckhardt who represented, he represented people in his community in Houston, Texas and he was elected for a good number of terms. Finally he was beaten by the oil interests whom he fought, they finally beat him with TV commercials. And Bob Eckhardt was saying, ex-Congressman Eckhardt was saying, "The American people have lost their sense of outrage." He was talking about the non-reaction to Contra-gate [sic - the Iran-Contra Affair, aka the Iran-Contra scandal] and to North [Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North], et cetera.

Russell Banks It goes hand-in-hand with the government having lost its sense of shame. You know, if they're not ashamed, then it's hard for us to be angry.

Studs Terkel So now we come to the people and what happened when this guy comes to town. Billy Ansel, he wants him as a guy. Billy won't. He tells him to go to hell, he doesn't want to take part. Why does Billy feel that way?

Russell Banks Billy's, Billy's wants in a way to linger over his grief and define his life by it. For him, the hereafter, the life after the accident is death, really, and anything which challenges that is threatening to him. I mean, as he moves into booze and he moves into withdrawal, I mean, he's, he just pulls down the curtain in a way. It's almost suicidal.

Studs Terkel Yeah, Billy is insulted, therefore when this guy offers him what this guy sees as life

Russell Banks Yeah,

Studs Terkel You know, the anger, he rebuffs him. He tells him to get the hell out of here. But then the guy Mitchell keeps on. He sees other -- now who are some of the others he sees?

Russell Banks He sees the, the Ottos, Wanda and Hartley Otto, the hippie craftspeople, and he signs them up and then there's

Studs Terkel They lost a kid they adopted. A kid named Johnny Bear?

Russell Banks Bear, Bear Otto is

Studs Terkel Bear Otto, not Johnny Bear, Bear Otto.

Russell Banks Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel And they agree.

Russell Banks Yeah, they go along with it. The husband is sort of stunned into silence and passivity, but the wife is angry enough, and yes, Stephens likes her, he feels he can work with her, and there's the other couple, Risa and Wendell Walker who run the motel, the "Bide a While Motel," and they're

Studs Terkel Been having a rough time.

Russell Banks Yeah, they haven't, they haven't put up a "No Vacancy" sign in 12 years.

Studs Terkel Now, this is an interesting couple, Risa Walker winds up having an affair with for some time out of loneliness in [unintelligible] with Billy Ansel.

Russell Banks Right. You know, it's one of those meetings between a lonely man and a lonely woman that serves a very clear and necessary function, but can't get below the surface. Can't go into a true meeting of minds.

Studs Terkel But what Stephens finds out, the lawyer, is that husband seemingly a weak guy, Wendell Walker, watches TV and the ball games. The cuckolded Wendell Walker, goes -- he finds he's got a great sense of anger.

Russell Banks Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel And he likes him.

Russell Banks Yeah, he's been saving up these grudges for a lifetime now, and this gives him a focus for it. I mean, I think these events can turn out to be that for a lot of people. They turn out to be, they releases this years and years of accumulated small offenses that they've never spoken out against, and it gets focused. He said, as Stephens says, he says, "Oh yeah, I'm anger is probably in my genes," he said. "But these cases like this Sam Dent case put a nice sharp focus on it for me."

Studs Terkel And Wendell Walker, it's not that he's sore at Billy Ansel or his -- well, not that, it's [sort?] something that's making his life

Russell Banks Yeah. He says, "A lifetime of accumulated small humiliations."

Studs Terkel These are the -- by the way, Dolores is not blamed by -- she's one of the people, she's -- Dolores Driscoll is not blamed for it, at the beginning.

Russell Banks No, it's very hard to blame someone like her. She's known, she's, she's trusted. You blame her, you blame yourself in a way.

Studs Terkel Now what about her suing? He'd like to have her, but she's uncertain, isn't she?

Russell Banks Yeah, yeah. She's in -- she takes the advice of her husband, or at least what's understood to be his advice and decides to pull out, not to go along with the suit. That in fact she's, she's got to deal with the question of blame in another way in a more complex and profound way than simply pointing here or pointing there.

Studs Terkel We know. I mean, Billy himself used to follow her regularly in the morning as he goes to work in his garage when she's driving the kids to school, he's [unintelligible]. He know, we know that she's going the -- she's pretty careful driver.

Russell Banks Yeah. Yeah.

Studs Terkel She's fifty-five miles an hour, 52, 55. And he knows

Russell Banks Yes. He's a witness. If she was driving fast, then he was driving fast, 'cause he was right behind

Studs Terkel [That's key?] So the guy's got a case he feels, then others and of course the poor, the outcast families, the trailer kind

Russell Banks of Yeah, the Atwaters and the Bilodeaus, yeah.

Studs Terkel Who lost the kids and they joined. So now we come to the fourth voice, and that's that beautiful girl of town who could be Miss Harvest

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel Queen, and that's

Russell Banks Nichole Burnell, right.

Studs Terkel Nichole Burnell, 14. Now we come to her. She obviously has got to be a key witness.

Russell Banks Yeah, she's the linchpin. Everything kind of hinges on her. She's the witness who's willing to testify finally after a great deal of argument and convincing on the part of her father and the part of Mitchell Stephens as well, but she's the linchpin.

Studs Terkel Well, now we hear her voice, don't we? About the life here with her mother, her father, her little sister and brothers. And so the father is so -- he's so devoted to her that in there everywhere, he's a carpenter, he can do, he fixes the ramp.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel He fixes the room so she could have it easy as she's lying there helpless. Right?

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel And yet she's thinking, this is the guy. This is the guy who secretly molested her.

Russell Banks Yeah. Yeah, and that that comes out, and it's her secret, and she's put in a position where a victim of sexual molestation or any kind of oppression and violation like that from a parent is, it's an impo-- she has two bad choices, too. She's like, she's like Dolores Driscoll, who has two bad choices. The kid who betrays the parent. I mean, that's one [trick?], you can choose to save yourself by betraying the parent. But in doing that, you're going to tear the family apart, you're going to destroy the family. Or you can continue to endure the violation, and in that case hold the family together. So there are two bad choices is all she's got, and in a perverse and unexpected way, certainly unexpected by her, the accident releases her from this. She says, "Before the accident, I was daddy's girl and now I'm a crippled girl." She said, "Now, everything is -- will be different." And so in a sense she's empowered by the accident.

Studs Terkel Well, she's empowered because the secret she keeps between herself and her father of his molestations casually, not very, but just very casual now and then, tentatively but there, and he is overwhelmed with guilt of course.

Russell Banks Right. He knows and she knows.

Studs Terkel Yeah, the mother -- and so she's a little sore at her mother for being that innocent. But also

Russell Banks -- Not protecting her. Right.

Studs Terkel But also she's got power over the old man.

Russell Banks Well, as it turns out, yeah.

Studs Terkel And now he's visiting her, the lawyer. Of course, she's going to be it. And in the meantime, there's something called a deposition in which the -- who, the other lawyers work for the town

Russell Banks Yeah, yeah for the other parties who are being sued deposes the main witnesses

Studs Terkel And these parties are what? Companies? Yeah,

Russell Banks Yeah, in this case it was the state of New, of New York and the representatives of the, hired by the town to defend themselves against being sued because they had left the sandpit unfilled.

Studs Terkel And she doesn't remember, so you're thinking how she's going to be in court, the lawyer, Stephens, says "It's gonna be, this is easy," but she doesn't remember, but somehow along the line that deep, deep feeling she has about the old man, about she can't deny the bitterness. Oh, by the way, there's a great -- there's a great dimension to her when she is crippled, how the kids come to visit her. She knows they want to get away as fast as they can.

Russell Banks She's a smart kid. And a gutsy kid, a gutsy kid. But the main thing she knows is that her father more than anything else wants this suit to go forward. He wants to make -- I mean, he wants to use her to make a million bucks. He's seen her as an object, well, before the accident he wanted to use her sexually, he wanted to use her, her beauty and attractiveness to other people as a way of making his own life seem a little more glamorous and a little larger. And now he wants to use her to, to bring this suit. It's the one thing he wants desperately, and it's the one thing she has the power to withhold.

Studs Terkel She's agreed, most of the town and the lawyer's a very persuasive guy, easy guy, he mean he's thinking of his own daughter [he lost?]. And she'll tell the truth, she says at the deposition. In the meantime she hears about Billy Ansel, [townie who defy?], he doesn't want people to sue, he wants to talk people out of the suit. But that's not what moves her to do what she does, is it?

Russell Banks No. Finally I think, and we don't want to give too much away here, finally she's, she's fixed on her relation -- the most important truth to her is the truth of her relationship with her father. In a way, everybody in the book has a deeper truth than the truth of what happened, or who caused the accident, the deeper truth of Stephen's relationship with his daughter Zoe, the drug-addicted kid. The deeper truth of the, of Billy Ansel and his a kind of a death worshipper in a way. And finally, the truth is that he's, he's a weak man, not a strong man.

Studs Terkel Who,

Russell Banks Yeah. And then a deeper truth that Dolores has about the nature of her relation to her husband and to the town at large, which is not exactly as this simple and trusted bus driver. So everybody has a kind of more profound and permanent personal truth that gets reorganized and rearticulated and sharpened for them by virtue of this accident.

Studs Terkel Yeah. There, you know the town with people really are separated one from the other in so many ways, and the immediate reaction we get when we read, we hear about a tragedy, is that it unites people.

Russell Banks Yeah, everybody gathers together

Studs Terkel That's what they think.

Russell Banks In mutual support and comfort and so forth

Studs Terkel But in this book, in your novel that's not quite the way it is.

Russell Banks No, it's not, by any means a simple gathering together and helping the, each other mourn. And part of it is due too, to our -- sort of the irresistible desire to kind of quantify our grief, to turn it into dollars, and the way in which we can get jerked around and manipulated by that desire.

Studs Terkel It's about also grief.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel It's about grief and how grief is met, encountered and handled. It's that aspect, too.

Russell Banks Yeah, grief that the whole community feels, too. Not necessarily

Studs Terkel Grief, by the way, grief and anger have to be there. There's the grief without anger. It's something.

Russell Banks It's sentimental

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Russell Banks Aspect.

Studs Terkel And so if we come back to -- I would say the [casualty?] grief and anger and a certain kind of -- well, let's not say redemption, we'll come to that. You know, your book has been described as a great book of redemption of the town. I don't see, I, my reply that yes, no. No, yes.

Russell Banks Right. Right. Well, like the rest of reality, right?

Studs Terkel Yes, no, no, yes, see. I'm talking to Russell Banks. You can gather -- by the way, some of this are reading out loud. You hear these voices. You know, they're so vivid they jump at you. It's almost as though it were oral, you know. "The Sweet Hereafter", we'll come to the, that title itself and how it plays a role here. Russell Banks my guest a novelist and, it's a highly regarded book to put it mildly, by readers and by critic. [pause in recording] We now we have the four voices. Russell Banks' book. The first voice that opens and closes the book is Dolores Driscoll, this middle-aged woman, a stalwart of the town. By the way, she's lived there, her family's lived there longer than anybody's I think. From the very beginning, how it got the name of Sam Dent, the town, certain guy and had been there for years, so she's a town pillar, and she drives the kids, she likes the kids and everybody banks it, they're not blaming her. It's pretty clear now

Russell Banks Also, the lawyer doesn't want to go after her. She's got -- she doesn't have deep pockets, she's -- if you nail her, what have you done? You've just nailed one individual, and he's interested in, in using negligence suits as a deterrence really, and as punishment to a crime. He's after, he's after Ford Motor Company, or the State of New York.

Studs Terkel There's a great piece of dialogue between the lawyer and Stephens and Dolores Driscoll in which he says, "I know you're innocent. I know you abided by" and he quizzes her. Not quizzes, there are questions. And she's strong, she doesn't want any support. She knows she's, she knows she's innocent.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel She doesn't need any to tell her that she is, and the town more or less accepts that, that she did not violate the, did not drive too fast.

Russell Banks She didn't do what anybody else in town wouldn't have done

Studs Terkel She didn't drive too

Russell Banks Under

Studs Terkel And so her voice is heard. And then just to recount, recapitulate, the voice of Billy Ansel who doesn't want to sue, just courting death, the town hero of Vietnam, who lost his two kids, long ago lost his wife. And then there's the lawyer Stephens driven by this anger you got to get 'cause his own kid by the way is destroyed in this crazy society. This is an accident, and then you have the pretty 14-year-old girl, her [up retake?]. And so looks like she's going to testify for the plaintiffs when BAM! The guys are there, and she lies. She says Dolores drove too fast, 'cause she was sitting next to her on the bus.

Russell Banks She could see exactly: 72 miles an hour.

Studs Terkel Now, why did she lie?

Russell Banks That gives her power. She takes away the thing that her father wants most. He took away what mattered to her the most, you know, her soul in a sense. And so she takes back. She's a wounded and enraged person.

Studs Terkel By the way, the father is not -- it's funny, you're talking about a child molester, daughter would say he's not a brutal man.

Russell Banks He's not a monster.

Studs Terkel The brutal, the brutality of course is there in every way, but he's not the stereotypically really, he's gentle and he's scared stiff and he knows, he's terrified, and he does everything he possibly can to make it comfortable for her. There.

Russell Banks Right. But you're right, he's scared stiff, yeah. He knows what he's done.

Studs Terkel And so she does this and of course that -- there's Stephens. That destroys the case.

Russell Banks Yeah, because then all the pieces start falling away. People -- it's a fragile enough structure as it is, holding something like this together is extremely difficult and once you lose that momentum, it comes undone. The deal comes undone. The Ottos drop out of the case. Lisa [sic - Risa] and Wendell Walker drop out of the case.

Studs Terkel And Stephens just -- the lawyer just, the daddy, daddy is stunned of course, as the other plaintiffs are, and Stephens says, "You'd make a great poker player, kid." He's, but then he says to the father, he knows nothing about the molestation. He's, "A kid who would do that to her own father, you got something else to worry about," says Stephens. Now, she's worried. Now, she's a good kid. But she's worried --she lied. That means that, that Dolores drove too fast, therefore that she's the guilty one!

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel Now, is she going to be hurt? She's worried about that. Is, that will Dolores be hurt by this? She asks.

Russell Banks The father, the father knows no, now. It's too late for that.

Studs Terkel But it's made clear that she will not, the town -- it's one of their own, he says.

Russell Banks Yeah, they're not going to stone her.

Studs Terkel Huh?

Russell Banks They're not going to stone her, you know, like the woman in, in, the character in the Shirley Jackson

Studs Terkel You mean "The Lottery."

Russell Banks "The Lottery", yeah.

Studs Terkel But nonetheless she has this guilt.

Russell Banks Yeah, there's a residual

Studs Terkel -- What she's done to Dolores.

Russell Banks There's also a residual rage in need among, in the town to blame, and, you know I guess in some ways the argument in the book is between several kinds of truth, too. There's the truth -- she says to her father, "We know the truth, don't we? You and I." And he says, "Yeah, we know the truth." And then later at the fair, at the grandstand Billy Ansel tells her, tells Dolores what's happened, and Dolores looks at him and says, "But you know the truth, don't you?" He says, "Yeah, I know the truth." So it's that personal truth that that's absolute, and then there's the shared community truth, which is something else, and which needs ritual and in a kind of community voice to give expression too, for them to go on, but they don't necessarily have to be the same thing.

Studs Terkel You see, the, the, there are three people who know the literal truth, that Dolores Driscoll did not drive too fast. The three people are Dolores Driscoll herself, the girl who lies, and Billy Ansel who followed her in the car all the time. These three know it. Now, Dolores by the way, and her husband, the guy with the stroke, Abbott, move out before they're aware. She's not aware! She moves to another town, doesn't she?

Russell Banks No, she starts working in another town. She starts driving for a, for a hotel in Lake Placid, and

Studs Terkel But she's unaware that this

Russell Banks -- Basically she withdraws from the town.

Studs Terkel She's unaware the girl lied, is that

Russell Banks No, not until Ansel tells her.

Studs Terkel Yeah, because she's elsewhere. And she doesn't know that she is the scapegoat. She doesn't know. Something bothers her. She's saying the, about the town itself, but she doesn't know this, you see. Before we come to that moment, which is a revelatory moment involving the weakness of Billy Ansel, and the strength of Dolores Driscoll, and might I add the weakness of the townspeople, too, in there, and then finally, we'll come to that and something called a demolition derby involving that car, that old bus

Russell Banks "Boomer."

Studs Terkel But before that, there's kind of redemptive moment between the girl Nichole and her father. Suddenly weight is lifted from him, too, isn't it?

Russell Banks Yes, it's necessary. Something that important has been taken away from him. An exchange has been made, and he's, you know it's the offense has been clarified and articulated now, it's, the secret's out at least between them, and the terms of it are clarified.

Studs Terkel And there's a scene there about those two know the truth about themselves, and going for ice cream and suddenly there's a free and easy feeling as though the burden is lifted from both on the basis of her lie here, too, which is another aspect.

Russell Banks And she's safe from him now.

Studs Terkel And but we got to come to Dolores' discovery that she's the scapegoat, the town's blaming her, she doesn't know it yet. She thinks that -- the guy, the lawyer went back to New York, he lost. Lost again. That lawyer. And Billy Ansel, no sense of triumph. He wanted the suit to be destroyed. And it was destroyed. There's no triumph he feels.

Russell Banks No, he's free now to descend into the kind of alcoholic depression that he's been nursing for years anyhow, and which is, you know, he just goes, driving down into that tunnel.

Studs Terkel And by the way, he's become, he was a party to the lie because he knew the truth and didn't tell

Russell Banks That's right.

Studs Terkel That [unintelligible] want that truth, so now because he's courting death, the hell with it, if something goes along with him, too, basically the [weaknesses? weakness is?], because now he's pretty much a town drunk.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel And now we're going to come to the last sequence in the book in which it all comes together because we're all here, we see it on TV. Demolition derbies, cars, violence through technology

Russell Banks Those things are really, really loved, those things

Studs Terkel And you've got to describe a demolition derby in which this bus! That was [destroyed?] was rebuilt by one of the helpers

Russell Banks Actually, one of Billy's mechanics. Yeah, well what they -- they're very simple, I don't -- you've never seen one, they usually there's a small part of a track roped off and hosed down so that it's wet and muddy, and, and very carefully orchestrated collisions are arranged between these old beat-up cars that are carefully stripped of all the sharp parts and chrome and bumpers and so forth, and windows, and they just bang each other to death until there's one left, and the one that survives is the one that wins the prize. It's a, you know, a $50

Studs Terkel And one of those

Russell Banks It's no big deal.

Studs Terkel The town -- it's during a fair, during a fair. Let's come to that. We'll take our last break.

Russell Banks OK.

Studs Terkel And we'll come to when it all seemingly comes together. Nothing ever will come together seemingly. "The Sweet Hereafter" is the book of Russell Banks, remembered of course for "Continental Drift" and "Affliction", two powerful novels that deal with a similar not theme, but a similar environment. Those, all those blue-collar towns we know so little about behind what is a Currier and Ives portrait, you know, and especially today too, we know the unemployment in New England towns and small towns in upper -- place like upper New York. Are there. "Third World America" you cover so well is what Joseph Coates, the literary critic of the "Chicago Tribune" described in a very favorable review indeed of Russell Banks' book. [pause in recording] There's a big fair, and everybody's going to be at this fair where the demolition derby's going to occur. The town there, now, Dolores Driscoll and her husband in the wheelchair is coming to visit the town. They

Russell Banks They've withdrawn, they stayed out of circulation during this period for, you know, for the reasons

Studs Terkel Now they're coming to the town and she senses something crazy. There's a coldness to her. Unaware that they now consider her driven to it, and they won't help the guy up the stairs in the wheelchair. Sitting there, cool. And then the girl comes in, she is the town heroine, that is Nichole carried in, and she's the heroine of the town.

Russell Banks Right. Right. They make a procession like carrying her up the stairs sort of the wheelchair is going to match up. She's got, she's at one end and there's a procession and poor Dolores at the other end of the stands with her husband Abbott in his wheelchair and nobody will help them and she's trying to, sort of hump it up the stairs backwards

Studs Terkel And she's kind of a little bewildered, isn't she, by the coldness. And there Billy Ansel drunk with a babe is there and Billy accidentally spills the beans. He didn't know that she didn't know that she's considered the guilty one. Now, Billy knows she didn't [track?], he's sitting there, so now you got a scene here, don't you? I mean, he's drunk and suddenly he's blurted it out and suddenly he realized she didn't know 'til this moment. And the old stricken, the guy with the stroke who can't talk is, just looking at him, it's driving Billy a little and he's drinking more and more. Now he's, he's now being self-conscious.

Russell Banks Yeah, he's nailed.

Studs Terkel He's nailed. And old Abbott, Abbott is the old, see, the husband with the stroke of Dolores Driscoll says, "Well, what did Nichole witness?" In his own, in his own labored way bring it out. And this guy doesn't know what to say, does he, and he can't escape the guy's gaze, and finally tells that Nichole said she drove too fast. And what's Dolores' reaction to all this?

Russell Banks Yeah, that's a, there's a long passage there where she takes this in, and it's a kind of recognition I guess that the event is so kind of life-changing. Up to now in a sense she hasn't allowed herself to change with the event, and

Studs Terkel Anywhere, it's the one of these pages, you can find -- whichever underlined pages around there

Russell Banks She says now, first she says to Ansel, you know, "You know the truth." He says, "I'm sorry." She says, "Don't be sorry to me, Billy. Not as long as you know the truth." He says, "Yeah, I know the truth." She says, "That's two of us then. There were three of us, of course, counting Nichole," and then then she goes on to say, "Now, in addition to the truth, I knew what nearly everyone else in town knew and believed." She knew her truth and then she knew what everybody else knew as well." She says, "And if they didn't, they were learning and coming to believe it this very minute probably from the person standing or sitting next to them here at the fair. They were learning that Dolores Driscoll, the driver of the school bus was to blame for the terrible Sam Dent school bus accident last January. They were learning that Dolores had been speeding, that she had been driving recklessly, driving the bus in a snowstorm at nearly 20 miles an hour over the limit, and then, and so forth." And then she says, "And what did I feel?" She says, "I remember feeling relieved," but that's a weak word for

Studs Terkel She's telling that to us

Russell Banks Yeah. She says, "Right away without thinking once about it, I felt like a great weight that I had been lugging around for eight and nine months since the day of the accident had been lifted from me." She said, "What a terrible weight." She says, "That's strange. You'd expect me to feel angry maybe, unjustly accused and all that, but I didn't. Not at all. I felt relieved and therefore grateful. Grateful to Billy Ansel even for revealing what Nichole had done, and grateful to Nichole for having done it. I felt myself singled out in a way that had not happened to me before, and although I have never experienced such a solitude as that, I have also never felt quite so strong."

Studs Terkel Yeah. Well, there's that she's, she's -- but now we've got as is leaving. Oh, they're gonna not going to see the end of the derby, the hell with it, she no longer belongs to this town. She's, "What's the point of it?"

Russell Banks You got it.

Studs Terkel You see, since it's pretty weak. They're a pretty weak bunch.

Russell Banks Yeah.

Studs Terkel She didn't belong in this town, where she's going to go out, but now Billy and all the guys are helping. Are helping him with the wheelchair down the stairs. You got that, too.

Russell Banks Right.

Studs Terkel And now wait we can't finish because the demolition derby. Now we see the cars bump and destroying each other, and in the middle is the reconstructed bus.

Russell Banks Yeah, old "Boomer."

Studs Terkel "Boomer."

Russell Banks Well, it was, it was the original station wagon, her first bus.

Studs Terkel The original

Russell Banks Yeah. Yeah.

Studs Terkel And that turns out to be the survivor. And now that cheer, now what are they, what are they

Russell Banks Well, at first they cheer every time it gets hit. The town just loves to see that car get hit.

Studs Terkel Why?

Russell Banks It's, it's, it's like an objective correl-- it's a stand-in for Dolores.

Studs Terkel But it, it wins!

Russell Banks And then they cheer that, too.

Studs Terkel They cheer the winning! This is it, so it seems to be that it all comes to, they cheer as Boomer wins and then, 2-5-1, this is where we come into "The Sweet Hereafter", the title. It's as if you had this, she felt, Dolores felt, absolutely separated from the town of Sam Dent and its people, and once owned, driven by Dolores Driscoll, this bus, they want to see it get destroyed by a bunch of other cars and then join in, it's almost like a lynch spirit, surrogate way, ersatz this lynch point, the very same people cheered to see it turn and destroy the others. This demolition derby was a thing that held meaning for other people, but not for me. And here's the part: "And now I don't believe that Nichole Burnell, that girl could have joined them, nor would the other children on that bus." We come back to the children now, and this is "All of us, Nichole, I, the children who survived the accident, children who did not, it was as if these were the kids are separated from the adults of the town. It was as if we were the citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, or they memorialized us," the dead kids, you know. "Or despised us," (her), "Whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs, not ours, which since it'd be no other way, was exactly as it should be." So you're coming down now toward the very end as what the, says what the human species may be all about, too.

Russell Banks She takes the large view, doesn't she?

Studs Terkel Yeah, boy. So this is pretty much the idea of a powerful and deeply moving book, by the way, where the voices that are their own, those four voices, and through it, the voices of the town. Russell, by any, any base we haven't touched?

Russell Banks No, you've done a great job!

Studs Terkel This is "The Sweet Hereafter" by Russell Banks, and it's Harper & Collins the publishers. I like that cover, a Ferris wheel. Kind of [an old world?] affair, at a fair, and all I've got to say is "Thank you very much."

Russell Banks Well, thank you, Studs.