They had both been a little drunk. She sat on the bed, “reached down, unstrapped her shoes without looking and flipped them off her feet,” but he continued to gaze out the window at the sea. He had engineered the evening to end this way, but when she asked him if he was going to keep standing there, he replied, “I don’t know.” She slipped her shoes back on, rehooked her earrings and stood up to leave.
“He said, ‘I’m sorry.’
She said: ‘Don’t be. You didn’t do anything.’
He said, ‘That’s why I’m sorry.’ ”
Their second meeting, five years later, will end with a similar goodbye — and a similar sense of regret. Both times, Stanley recognizes that Ellen is someone who “made him visible to himself, funny, smart, good-looking and lonely,” and that, in her presence, he feels “for the first time in years,” maybe in his whole life, that he is alive. But for myriad reasons — his marriage, his fear of emotion, his resistance to change — he does not act on his feelings.
Similar hinge moments stand at the heart of most of the stories in “A Permanent Member of the Family” — emotional pivot points that will determine the trajectory of the characters’ lives. In the more powerful tales, Mr. Banks uses his sturdy gifts as a writer — his plain-spoken language, his sympathy for the downtrodden and depressed, his eye for detail (those unstrapped shoes, flipped off Ellen’s feet) — to give us visceral portraits of people trying to make sense of the past and the present.
In the more problematic ones, he falls back on contrivance and O. Henry-esque plot twists to propel his story lines. A former Marine with cash flow problems who resorts to robbing banks just happens to have three sons who are in law enforcement (“Former Marine”). A woman flies to Florida to offer a friend comfort after her husband dies suddenly died of a heart attack, only to find the friend not in mourning, but strangely giddy — excited about beginning a new chapter in her life (“Snowbirds”). In “Transplant,” the widow of an accident victim engineers a meeting with the patient who received her husband’s heart and asks if she can use a stethoscope to listen to it beating.
In his 1985 masterwork, “Continental Drift,” and other novels like “Affliction” (1989), Mr. Banks has mapped the dark side of the American dream: the disappointment, even desperation that ensues when ambitions and hopes are thwarted, and dreams slip out of reach.
Like so many of the people in his earlier fiction, the characters in these stories tend to have led hard lives up North (in upstate New York) or down South (in Florida), and the recession has hit them badly. A man is let go from his job at an auction house — “Let go. Like he was helium-filled balloon on a string, he tells people.” Another man has lost his Adirondack furniture shop, and he and his wife are second-mortgaged to their eyeballs, first to help their daughters finish college and now to help them pay off their college loans. And a woman named Ventana, who works at American Eagle Outfitters in Miami Shores, has diligently saved $100 a month for three years to try to purchase her first car, but worries that all she can afford is a pre-owned lemon, “rusted, scraped, dinged and dented.”
Ventana tucks 35 one-hundred- dollar bills into her brassiere on the day she decides to go to Sunshine Cars USA. (“No way a used-car dealer who doesn’t know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears.”) Instead of driving home with her new purchase, however, she finds herself in a ridiculous predicament: She’s trapped behind a gate in the dealership’s parking lot after it closes, and she’s stuck on the roof of a car after being chased up there by an angry pit bull.
Although Ventana has a cellphone, she is reluctant to call 911 because, she reasons, “things always get complicated when you involve the police,” and she realizes she doesn’t really have anyone else she can call: Her son is far away, her daughter is likely to panic (and start drinking again), and her ex-husband “will probably laugh at her for having put herself in this situation.”
Most of the other people in these stories are similarly stranded, isolated — or alone. Even the most successful of the lot, an artist who has just won a MacArthur “genius” grant, discovers he has no one to share his excitement: At a drunken dinner party, when he announces his big win, his friends and even his wife react with a combination of envy and resentment (“Big Dog”). In “The Invisible Parrot,” a down-and-out busboy sees a bedraggled woman in a neighborhood grocery store and tries to imagine her daily routine, thinking if he can see her — understand her — perhaps she won’t feel as invisible and hopeless as he does. And in “Christmas Party,” a man reluctantly goes to a gathering given by his ex-wife and her new husband and sees that they are living the life — in a “high-tech log house” built to “establish and celebrate their marriage” — that he has always dreamed of.
As for the volume’s title story, “A Permanent Member of the Family” (which refers to a dog that refuses to abide by the custody agreement worked out by a divorcing husband and wife), it actually underscores the degree to which everything seems impermanent — precarious and provisional — in Mr. Banks’s world: a view of the human condition in which “all of us were fissioned atoms” spun off from nuclear families and seeking, usually without success, “new, recombinant nuclei.”