Rule of the Bone
April 26, 2000
Rule of the Bone, A Novel. By Russell Banks. HarperCollins, cloth, $22. Every few years, Russell Banks quietly publishes the Great American Novel. I first became aware of his work in 1985, when I read Continental Drift, which tells of a blue-collar New Hampshire family man struggling to keep from going under, and the existential crisis that leads him to Florida, where he ends up on a collision course with a peasant woman fleeing Haiti. The story Banks weaves in that book is an old one, yet the way he tells it is so fresh and new and empathetic that we get an indelible portrait of the fallacy of the American Dream. Without being preachy, Continental Drift also paints a portrait of the ways we are all connected, and makes real the chain of events that small actions set into motion. It is as perfect, and perfectly written, a novel as I've ever read. Banks's latest novel, Rule of the Bone, is narrated by Chappie, a fourteen-year-old mohawked pothead and petty thief who runs away from home when he can no longer stand the drunken sexual liberties his stepfather takes with him. Choosing to live in various squats, and hanging out in the mall, Chappie moves through the underbelly of an economically depressed small town, where he has a series of encounters with other disenfranchised characters -- a gang of hard-partying bikers; a pedophile and the little girl he has bought from her crackhead mother; and his dim friend Russ, another teenage runaway escaping the horrors of a fucked-up home. After surviving a fire, Chappie becomes the selfcreated Bone, precociously wise, who realizes that he has crossed a line into criminality, from which he believes there is no return. Bone meets a homeless Rasta, I-Man, who has turned a wrecked school bus into a garden of Eden. Under his influence, Bone begins to transcend what he might otherwise have become. "That could have been me," he thinks, "that poor bewildered kid in the Doc Martens and the rattail haircut and the painful looking red and blue and black newly drilled tattoos all over his pink skin ..." When he decides to try to re-create family life with his mother, however, Bone finds that she will not hear what he has to say about his stepfather. Realizing this is no longer any place for him, he leaves home for good. The second half of the book follows Bone and I-Man to Jamaica, where for the first time since he was a child, Bone meets with his real father, a shadowy, coked-out figure named Doc. In the process, he gets caught in a web of dope, intrigue, and betrayal that results in death. As the story shifts, Bone becomes the novel's moral center. He reflects that "[s]tealing is a crime, but betrayal of a friend is a sin. It's like a crime is an act that when you've committed one the act is over and you haven't changed inside. But when you've committed a sin it's like you create a condition that you have to live in. People don't live in crime, they live in sin." In Rule of the Bone, what redemption occurs is not found, but rather consciously constructed by Bone. He is an astonishing creation, an ordinary teenager, struggling to make sense where there is none, painfully self-aware, and with an inner life that seems utterly believable. The last pages of his narrative are as wonderful as anything I've ever read. As in Continental Drift, Banks is especially fine in the passages here that deal with connection. The story is, at times, a kind of doped-out, souped-up late-twentieth-century Huck Finn, but this is not a bad thing. Banks is no postmodern pyrotechnician, he is a solid craftsman. That's not to say he doesn't take chances; the characters he develops, and the progressions of their lives, are dazzling. In this book, Banks's humanity shines through at all times -- the points he makes about the fragility of children and the ineptitude and outright hostility of the adults meant to care for them are painfully drawn. The territory he traverses is, as it has always been, that hardscrabble, one-paycheck-away-from-broke world where eruptions of domestic violence and abuse, often fueled by liquor and frustration, lurk under every surface. Many of Banks's characters are treading water to save themselves, and sometimes what is right disappears in the wake of what is necessary. More than any writer currently working, he realistically captures the heartbreak and sorrow of those who've been sucker-punched by America, and, what is more, he does so with a crystal clear voice and prose that is luminous. Russell Banks is a national literary treasure. Buy this book.