Class and politics, lust and art, ego and madness—all are grand themes in literature, and all play a part in Russell Banks' new novel, The Reserve, set in the Adirondacks in the 1930s. The Tamarack Reserve, a secluded enclave of faux-rustic cabins on remote lakes in the mountains, is a painful microcosm of the haves and have-nots of the era—specifically the rich part-time residents and the local guides, cooks and caddies who serve them. Jordan Groves, a prominent artist whose leftist leanings mark him as suspicious, can't seem to support the workers in The Reserve in any meaningful way despite his politics, especially when he depends upon the wealthy for his own living. And Vanessa Cole, the fiercely untamed, beautiful and possibly completely off-her-rocker daughter of a brain surgeon and a socialite, can't seem to stay out of trouble. The two meet when Jordan lands his plane on the lake of Vanessa's family cabin. The attraction is immediate, but Jordan, despite repeated indiscretions on his biennial retreats to the wilds of Greenland, Bolivia and Peru, envisions his wife Alicia and two sons waiting for him at home, and rejects Vanessa's advances.
When Vanessa's father dies the same evening, her already uncertain sanity seems to slip even more, eventually leading to a horrific accident and cover-up that winds up uncovering more than any of them bargained for. Banks' male characters are manly men, in the way Hemingway wrote manly men, and indeed, Hemingway's name and themes crop up repeatedly. While Banks' writing style is lovingly reminiscent of the era he writes about, he approaches his plot in a clear and conscious manner, and all of his characters, including the women, are obviously well understood by the author and are humanly, if extraordinarily, flawed. Jordan is barely able to see past his own rich internal life to note that he might not be the only one in need of a companion in his marriage or that another manly man might betray him, and Vanessa either cannot adequately confront or cannot adequately prove a chillingly remembered childhood trauma. Their own selfish needs land them squarely on their reckless, inexorably merged path. Interspersed with the unfolding drama at Tamarack Reserve are alternating stories of the Spanish Civil War and the Hindenburg.
The initially obscure vignettes provide a tension and sense of inevitability to the book as a whole and describe an attempt at redemption of which Hemingway himself would be proud. Russell Banks is at the top of his game here, and The Reserve is sure to please his fans and make new ones.
Kristy Kiernan once made a memorable trip to the Adirondacks.