The Reserve

By Russell Banks

Harper, 287 pages, $24.95

In summer 1898, philosopher William James climbed Mt. Marcy, highest peak in the Adirondacks and a geographic locus of Russell Banks' new novel, "The Reserve." Writing to his wife of his trip in the wilderness, James observed that "it seemed as if the Gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral Gods of the inner life," and alluded almost ineffably to "the intense significance of some sort, of the whole scene, if one could only tell the significance; the intense inhuman remoteness of its inner life, and yet the intense appeal of it; its everlasting freshness and its immemorial antiquity and decay; its utter Americanism."

The welter of thoughts and the emotional complex James describes -- encountering something intensely significant and appealing and yet ultimately remote, with myths of nature and one's own nature in play, contending as well with whatever moral framework has been internalized -- comes close to approximating the psychological state many of Banks' people find themselves in as they lead their lives in the rustic surrounds of the Adirondacks' Great Range. It is a generalized north country Banks has evoked before, the town of Sam Dent from "The Sweet Hereafter" is nearby, although place names are borrowed from elsewhere as well, the town of Tunbridge from neighboring Vermont, and Wappingers Falls from the mid-Hudson Valley.

There will be bloodletting in "The Reserve," and moral compasses will waver due to the personal magnetism of some characters, but even as the novel funnels toward its heavily foreshadowed end, a sense of indeterminacy (and suspense) remains as we witness this scene:

"Hubert looked at Jordan, then at Vanessa. His partners in crime. Fellow liars. Adulterers. Everyone in it together, but only for him- or herself. He didn't know who any of them was any more, not even Alicia. Not even himself. All he knew was what they had done. He had no idea of why, however."

Hubert St. Germain is a laconic Adirondack guide, not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he has long been in the service of Vanessa's family, who are members of the private sanctuary of the novel's title, the Tamarack Wilderness Reserve. Vanessa Cole is an erratic young socialite, a femme fatale and frequent topic in the national gossip pages rumored to have had affairs with Ernest Hemingway and Baron von Blixen (the big-game hunter best known from Isak Dinesen's account "Out of Africa"). Jordan Groves, an occasional globetrotter with socialist sympathies and friends like novelist John Dos Passos, is a famous artist-illustrator who buzzes around the Great Range in his pontooned biplane and becomes enmeshed with the others through happenstance, initially. Alicia is Jordan's Viennese wife, a self-described atheist and Marxist and his onetime student at the Pratt Institute, where she had come to study art in America, only to elope with him, to the consternation of her wealthy parents.

The Tamarack Wilderness Reserve is a 40,000-acre shareholder estate, a gated wilderness rather than a gated community but one that operates on similarly exclusive principles: Only members are allowed on the reserve's acreage and lakes. Its rich inhabitants arrive from the outside world on a seasonal basis and lord it over the locals, who are economically dependent on jobs as guides and cooks and domestics and groundskeepers and bartenders. Effectively, "a class of independent yeomen and yeowomen had been turned into a servant class," Banks writes. It is 1936, the middle of the Great Depression, and the reserve "was practically the only private employer left in the region."

Like E.L. Doctorow (whose "Loon Lake" also featured an Adirondack estate in the midst of the Depression, complete with a female aviator), Banks has fun toying with real historical elements in his fiction. Recall "Cloudsplitter," narrated by a son of John Brown's (the Adirondack linkages there appeared in the very title -- the native name for Mt. Marcy was Tahawus, which meant "cloud splitter"). Here, Jordan Groves is loosely modeled on artist Rockwell Kent, who lived in the Adirondacks, was loved in Russia (the Hermitage has many of his works), traveled to paint far-flung places such as Greenland (as Groves has), notably illustrated books (he did " Moby Dick," Groves does "Huck Finn" although he regrets turning down the chance to do "Gone With the Wind"), and studied under painter Charles Henri (as did Groves; in life, incidentally, Henri was also the teacher of Edward Hopper).

Floating through Banks' narrative will be the German zeppelin Hindenburg, fleeting bits of period dressing like the abdication of King Edward VIII for a life with his lover, Wallis Simpson, and more-frequent references to developments in the newly begun Spanish Civil War, from the Lincoln Brigade to Guernica. (Jordan, a crusader of causes who had flown as a soldier in World War I, briefly in Eddie Rickenbacker's command, considers joining the republican effort.)

"The Reserve" opens with a 4th of July celebration at Rangeview, the lakeside camp of Vanessa's parents, Carter and Evelyn Cole. Carter is a prominent brain surgeon, a Yale alum (Skull and Bones member) also reputed to be the developer of a promising new procedure known as lobotomy. Vanessa has strolled alone out on a ledge, "like an exhibit, a piece of sculpture set at the edge of the lake," when she hears a plane approaching (not allowed on the reserve). Spotting it, "she thought she was watching a man about to crash his airplane deliberately against the thousand-foot vertical slab of gray granite, and she forgot her cold thoughts and grew almost excited, for she had never seen anyone kill himself and realized that in some small way she'd always wanted to and was surprised by it."

That is Jordan in his plane, en route to view Vanessa's father's collection of paintings. He doesn't crash but taxis his plane across the lake instead, admiring Vanessa as he approaches her. It will be obvious from the shoreline that some aspects of Banks' plot have the transparency of Adirondack lake water: How long Jordan and Vanessa can put off an assignation may be the main question in readers' minds, not whether one will take place. But Vanessa's untoward thoughts represent one of the better qualities of "The Reserve," the unseemly pangs of self-recognition with which Banks salts his characters, in odd moments of consciousness such as we all experience, lending them dimension.

The guide Hubert, for example, is a widower who married his high-school sweetheart only to lose her in a car crash. Too many nights since, he has ended up drinking at a bar or in a stranger's kitchen, only to make his drunken way home, cry and then pass out in his clothes. Yet "with each day's waking his loneliness and sorrow were worsened by his fear that neither was due to the death of his wife, that both had been in him all along." And "he'd never even tried to speak of the shameful mix of sorrow and relief he had felt when she died."

Jordan and Alicia's marriage was "sullen and suspicious and sexually tepid," and he had violated its spirit many times in his travels ("He was not even sure they were crimes," since he had done so with her permission and knowledge). Yet faced with the prospect that he might have to overlook behavior of hers:

"He wasn't sure he knew how. What did it feel like, anyhow, to forgive someone? . . . If you truly forgot the offense, how was forgiveness even possible?"

To Vanessa (who may have insanity as an excuse, one of the novel's ambiguities), "the truth was more a coloration of reality than the organizing principle of its underlying structure. For her, it was utterly, and merely, contingent." Who knows if it is true that her father dabbled in child pornography, with her as a subject, or if her mother is scheming to steal her inheritance and have her lobotomized? Carter Cole dies of a heart attack near the beginning of the novel, and at his funeral, "What began as a loving daughter's eulogy ended as a turgid, blurred accusation that so upset everyone that afterward no one would speak to her."

"The Reserve" doesn't take flight as often as Jordan does, although when Banks faces off characters one-to-one, the exchanges are vibrant and the flickering emotional coloration is true to life as only the best fiction is. He has given us a pack of liars, most of whom try to do the right thing but veer off course regardless. Hubert, less articulate than Jordan or Vanessa, believes that "too many things, especially when it came to human beings, and even more especially when it came to men and women, were too complicated to speak about honestly or accurately." But here is Jordan, honest and accurate:

"How can you tell the man who has been sleeping with your wife that, because of him, you no longer know who your wife is and therefore no longer know who you are, either?"

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Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to the Tribune.