ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Much of author Russell Banks' new novel, "The Reserve," takes place up in the air on a pontoon biplane, to be exact. The protagonist is a pilot and an artist named Jordan Groves. He flies around the Adirondack Mountains in pursuit of clarity and love. The geography is familiar territory for author, Russell Banks. Many of his novels including, "The Sweet Hereafter," unfold in the mountains of upstate New York. But the new one, "The Reserve," is written more in the style of a noir novel of the '30s.
It's the story of a love square where the protagonists cross the boundaries of marriage and class. My colleague, Jacki Lyden, spoke with Russell Banks.
JACKI LYDEN: Russell Banks, he set this story at a place called, The Reserve, in the middle of the Depression. Would you describe this wilderness area and tell me the inhabitants in it, please.
Mr. RUSSELL BANKS (Author): Well, it's the largest and maybe the last true wilderness in the Northeast of the United States. And in the 19th century, wealthy Manhattanites and New Englanders started migrating up there for the summer and building vast camps, they called them camps, but they were elaborate mansions, many of them. And their relationship with the local people quickly turned into a relationship between a ruling class of grandees on the one hand, and permanent residents of the poor who lived, for the most part, off these people as servants, and guides, and housekeepers, and cooks, and so on.
LYDEN: You based Jordan Groves, your protagonist, on a real-life painter named Rockwell Kent. Tell us more about Rockwell Kent.
Mr. BANKS: He's a fascinating figure. He lived most of his life in the same region. He fascinated me for a number of reasons. One is that he was a radical leftist and identified with and sympathized with the working poor. And yet his clientele and his social milieu, the people with whom he spent most of his time were from the elite classes.
LYDEN: Groves, like Kent, makes these rough-hewn woodcuts and builds fireplaces out of river boulder, a man's man, you'd have to say.
Mr. BANKS: Yeah, very much so, yeah, and but an archetypal American artist. In a way, it's a moral fable, I suppose. And I like thinking of Jordan Groves as a kind of type that is a little bit to memory maybe.
LYDEN: There's a, you know, there's so much lushness in this, and yet there's a lot of tautness too, because you're riveted as to where the story's going and were very divided. Everybody knows their place here and yet dare to step outside it whether it's they're poor and they are steeping into the world of wealth. Whether they are married and they're stepping outside the bounds of marriage.
Affairs, which are acted upon and imagined, run throughout this novel. And one of the themes you explore is the difference between secrets and lies. And there's a moment when Vanessa Cole says this marvelous passage. She's a young divorce and she says, secrets aren't like lies, they're more brain surgery. They kill your soul. Lying is only a technique for keeping secrets.
Mr. BANKS: Yeah, I'm very interested in this novel particularly, I guess, in the difference between secrets and lies and truth telling. And perhaps also the impossibility of knowing another human being, truly.
LYDEN: Do you think that this novel is more romantic, more unabashedly romantic than others that you've written?
Mr. BANKS: Well, there's certainly that and also there's a distance in the narrative. I mean, I wanted to try to tell this story from the air both literally and figuratively and then the narrative is a third person omniscient narrative, which I'm not usually associated with, I usually, I rely on a first person narrator. But in this case I wanted that distance to deal with characters who are very complicated, and double-sided, and who don't really know themselves deeply or well, but appear to know themselves well.
LYDEN: At some point, Jordan Groves' wife, Alicia, who is Austrian born, says to him, you envy the poor. And the book concludes with a perspective of a man who lives by his hands. And I want to now ask about book in contrast to others you've written. So many are about playing lives of working class people, is that true of you? Do you envy the poor, Russell Banks?
Mr. BANKS: Well, I think she goes on and realizes that what he really envies is what he sees as their innocence. I don't personally feel that I envy the poor. Having been poor, and having been raised poor, I certainly don't. And I don't think that I share with Jordan a view that the poor are innocent, necessarily. I'm not even sure I believe in innocence. But I understand how a person who was raised in poverty or in deprivation of one type or another, having removed himself from that can look back and have a certain kind of almost nostalgia for it.
And it goes with guilt. There's a kind of class guilt, I think, that I do feel and I can admit to. And one way of expressing that guilt is to, the first and perhaps the most awkward and maybe illegitimate way is through envy.
LYDEN: Well, it's been a great pleasure talking to you about your new novel, "The Reserve." Thank you so much, Russell Banks, for joining us.
Mr. BANKS: Well, thank you, Jacki.
LYDEN: You can read an excerpt about the night a mysterious plane landed at the reserve at NPR.org/books.
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