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THE SWEET HEREAFTER by Russell Banks

THE SWEET HEREAFTER

By Russell Banks

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1991
ISBN: 0-06-016703-3
Publisher: HarperCollins

Banks returns to the provincial reaches of upper New York State (Affliction, 1989), this time to see how a community tragedy touches the lives of ordinary people.

It's an early morning like any other in the civic-minded small town of Sam Dent--until a school bus inexplicably swerves from the highway and plunges through the ice of a water-filled sandpit, killing a number of children and leaving at least one crippled for life. In a compact but standard telling of the tale through the voices of four of the people involved--the bus's female driver; a father who loses his two children; a teenaged girl who faces life in a wheelchair; a right-minded negligence lawyer from N.Y.C.-- Banks offers both the pleasures and the topicality-driven excesses of the hyperfamiliar. Though there are gripping moments here--the lawyer's long-ago memory of once rushing his infant daughter to the hospital, for example--the impact of much else is diminished by the feeling that characters are type-representatives first and people second. The bus driver is married to a stroke victim; the bereaved father of two is a Vietnam veteran and a cancer-widower; the teenaged girl stuck in a wheelchair is also victim of her father's seductions; the lawyer's grown daughter, hopelessly lost to drugs, turns out also to have AIDS. Leaving no topic untouched, as if pleading to become a TV movie, the story moves toward a divisive negligence trial--which is averted by a plot surprise that may or may not convince most readers but that's rendered in an impressively skillful deposition scene.

Melodrama and populist realism in a Banksian mix that often rings tinny but that's easy reading and may have popular appeal.