By Russell Banks
Leonard Fife, the protagonist of Russell Banks’s furiously driven new novel, has been hiding all his life — from the world and from himself. On the outside he’s a successful documentary filmmaker, a semifamous left-wing figure in Canada, where he fled to from New England in 1968, supposedly to avoid the draft. He resides in a well-appointed Montreal apartment with Emma, his wife and producer of 40 years, and has managed to be both materially comfortable and morally righteous. But at 78, ill and on the verge of death, he’s now consumed by the need to confess that his life is as riddled with lies and betrayal as his body is with cancer.
To tell his story, he invites a former student, Malcolm, and a small crew to his apartment for what his acolyte believes is the chance to make a film about his mentor’s career. Fife, however, has a different purpose. To tell Emma — through the camera and in the spotlight — what he cannot bring himself to tell her in private: that before meeting her he abandoned two wives and two children and that he moved to Canada to escape not Vietnam but his own hollow self.
“Foregone” is Fife’s confession. In the present timeline of the novel, we never leave the film shoot. Where we go is deep into his bleak experience as a boy, young man and young father. Emma either already knows what Fife has to say, or doesn’t want to hear it. She’d rather he stop the interview and protect his reputation. But like a man desperate to expel a demon, which he can be free of only if his wife witnesses the exorcism, Fife insists repeatedly that she stay and listen. His mind addled by medication, he’s transported into his past, leaving the reader to guess how much of what we read is ever heard by his captive audience and how much is the dying man’s flight of memory.
One of the main strands of Banks’s fiction has long been what you might call a working-class New England existentialism. In bitterly eloquent novels such as “Affliction,” “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Continental Drift,” he has chronicled the blunted, pragmatic affect of Northern white men and the women unfortunate enough to be entangled with them. “Foregone” is in the same vein, only here the protagonist is an artist. And what Banks reveals of this artist’s life is a profound emptiness, seeded early on, which Fife has run from ever since.
Fife’s parents exhibited an “unbroken sadness and lassitude and constant low-level anxiety and detachment and pessimism bordering on despair,” which he believes he “caught” from them. At 16, in the first of many attempts to escape the inheritance of his grim home outside Boston, he drives to Texas, where he’s molested by a blind, middle-aged man and drinks himself into oblivion trying to forget the episode. By 19, he has fled to Florida, married a woman he met in a bar, gotten her pregnant and brought her back to Boston, where their relationship soon unravels. His second marriage, to a Virginian heiress attracted to his pose as a “serious young man” and writer, lasts longer and frames the bulk of his memories of his younger self. But it ends in the same fashion — with his disappearance.
As always, Banks’s prose has remarkable force to it. Like Emma, the reader too might prefer that Fife stop torturing himself in public, indulging in what is at times a kind of baroque self-recrimination complete with the sexist presumptions of the postwar American male. But there is such brio in the writing, such propulsion as the lashes are applied, that we follow Fife into the depths. The book’s real theme is the curse of being convinced that one is unlovable. And who among us hasn’t suffered that conviction to one degree or another? Such hollowness will haunt Fife till the end. He has managed to remain with Emma all these years only because early on she professed not to “need him more than he needed her,” a self-sufficiency they took as a mutual “compliment.” Only it isn’t. It’s a fantasy détente with the human condition of vulnerability. A condition that only now, in his final hours, does Fife no longer seek to hold at bay.
To his credit, Banks has never solicited his readers’ approval of his characters, and many are unlikely to be charmed by Leo Fife. But what they will find in “Foregone” is a character, a novel and a writer determined not to go gentle into that good night.
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