Tuesday, December 04, 2018

the last book I read

The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks.

It's all ill wind, as they say, that blows nobody any good. Disasters in foreign countries, volcanic ash grounding flights, fewer people going abroad, more people taking staycations, more money for the domestic tourism industry. Everyone in the world going blind simultaneously after unusual meteor shower activity, good news for homicidal ambulant rhubarb.

Even the seemingly no-upside occurrence of a packed school bus crashing through a guardrail and careering down a slope into a watery pit causing the deaths of fourteen children, all from a small close-knit nearby town, presents opportunities for some, specifically lawyers hoping to get together a class action suit and sue someone's ass in a mutually lucrative manner.

So here is Mitchell Stephens, one of the group of lawyers who have appeared in the chilly upstate New York town involved in the tragedy. Stephens tells himself that he is different from the others, though, as he is motivated by a higher purpose: not just the money, though that provides some comfort, but also the public and financially painful punishment of those who are deemed to have failed in their responsibilities to keep people safe. So, in a very real sense, there is a moral obligation to bring legal action in the wake of these tragedies, in order to modify people's behaviour so that future tragedies can be avoided.

At least, this is what Stephens tells himself, and us, in the section of the book which is presented in his voice. But is he being honest with himself, with his potential clients, and with us? The same questions can be asked of the other people whose voices we hear in the book, in particular bus driver Dolores Driscoll and local man and Vietnam veteran Billy Ansel, who are the only people who could give a conclusive answer to how fast the bus was going - Dolores because she was driving it, and Billy because he was following behind in his pickup as he often did, waving to his two kids on the back seat of the bus. No-one wants to blame Dolores - the locals because she is a respected member of the local community, Mitchell Stephens because she hasn't got any money and would be a dead-end in terms of securing a substantial payout. Billy, whose wife died of cancer a while back, has also been knocking off local motel-owner Risa Walker for some time without her husband's knowledge, so he is at least on some level capable of deceit.

The real spanner in the works, though, comes from an unexpected source: Nichole Burnell, who survived the crash but at the cost of being paralysed from the waist down. Mitchell Stephens wants Nichole to testify at the hearing, because she is a real survivor of the crash (unlike all those dead kids who can't speak for themselves) and as a pretty former cheerleader now confined to a wheelchair will present a tragic figure and hopefully jack up the amount of damages that can be won. Nichole is conflicted about all this, for a number of reasons: she doesn't want to lie to the hearing about anything, she is troubled by her being of more value to the lawyers and her family half-paralysed than when she was healthy and, most importantly she can see a way of revenging herself on her father, who has been sexually abusing her for many years.

So Nichole cooks up a story about Dolores Driscoll exceeding the speed limit before the crash, which pretty much torpedoes any chance the lawyers have of making any money out of the case. That's all very cute, of course, and it gets the case thrown out, thus exacting Nichole's revenge on her father, but of course it effectively puts the blame on Dolores for the deaths of fourteen kids, something everyone, not least Nichole and Dolores, will have to live with.

Here is, in some ways, an answer to the question of why people read "literary" fiction, inasmuch as that is a thing that has any meaning. Plot-wise the actual key event is over before the novel's timeline even starts, and is only referred to in flashback, and even then not in any great detail. It's a novel all about people's emotional reaction to the almost unimaginable tragedy of losing a child (multiple children, in some cases), and the train of perfectly natural reactions which follow which only serve to make the general situation worse. That is the thing good fiction does: make you nod in recognition that yes, this is how people act, and also make you sit back and say, well, yes, I hadn't quite looked at it like that before.

I'm very suspicious of statements about how you can only really appreciate certain things once you become a parent, as if it's literally impossible to imagine that you might be devastated at the death of your own child without having a specific child to imagine being devastated about. On the other hand I suppose it does just give a specific focus if you're able to attach an actual face to the child in the back of the bus disappearing off a ravine into the cold murky water, never to return.

Just like Marathon Man, The Sweet Hereafter is most famous for its film adaptation, featuring Ian Holm in the lead role of Mitchell Stephens and the recipient of many awards. Mitchell Stephens is specifically depicted as a tall skinny man and so it's interesting to note that the actor originally lined up to play him was Donald Sutherland, much closer to his physical depiction in the book. I have seen the film, though, a long time ago, and as I recall Ian Holm does a pretty good job.

The novel was based on some true-life events; for once their fictional depiction actually seems less shocking and lurid than the events themselves.