'Permanent' Shows Ordinary Americans — And Pets — Facing Life's Challenges

Alan Cheuse reviews a short story collection by Russell Banks called A Permanent Member of the Family. The stories feature ordinary Americans caught in one dilemma or another.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From the author of novels such as "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Cloudsplitter," Russell Banks, comes a new collection of short stories called "A Permanent Member of the Family." It presents ordinary Americans leading difficult lives who are caught in family dramas.

Alan Cheuse has our review.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Meet middle aged Stanley, attending a plumbing and heating supplies sales convention in Florida. His hobby: coming into a crowded room and doing what he thinks of as reading people, even speed reading them. Almost as soon as we meet him, in a story called "Lost and Found," Stanley reads a woman somewhere near his own age as wanting to meet him. And shortly thereafter, she approaches, calls him by his name and takes hand.

How close this takes Stanley to moral disaster you'll find out when you read the story, one of a dozen collected in these pages in which Russell Banks himself appears to be reading people rather closely.

"Lost and Found" is a good way to see most of the other folks in this collection: An estranged father accidentally runs over the family dog with disastrous consequences; a working-class woman in L.A., intent on using her savings to buy a used car, finds herself trapped overnight and in physical danger in a fenced-in car lot; a newly-widowed New England woman decides to remain in the Miami Bears condo she and here late husband shared, at least for a while, as her eyes open suddenly onto a new life.

Outside the apartment window, a friend of hers - visiting from the North - sees the lights of the city glistening on the rippled black surface of bay, and the headlights of cars on the arch causeway steadily crossing from the mainland to Miami Beach, looking like gold beads sliding down a string. And suddenly she understands how bereavement can change quickly to wonder.

The discoveries made by most of the other characters in this collection remain, by contrast, rather dark. But taken together, these stories comprise a richly composed tribute to life.

BLOCK: The book is "A Permanent Member of the Family" by Russell Banks. Alan Cheuse had our review.

For more ideas on what to read and give this holiday season, including some of Alan's suggestions, pay a visit to our new Book Concierge at NPR.org/bestbooks.

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