31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 14: “Former Marine” by Russell Banks

May 14, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From A Permanent Member of the Family

A_Permanent_Member_of_the_FamilyThe fiction of Russell Banks frequently circles back to themes of guilt and innocence. Being a moral writer of a particularly American stripe, innocence in Banks’s work is a loaded concept, and one that is very rarely pure or untainted. His characters, often working class or beset by poverty and alcoholism, struggle to wrest some sense of dignity and purpose out of lives that seem to render them prisoners of circumstance. As Elizabeth Tallent wrote in a New York Times review of the novel Affliction,

any attempt to escape from poverty can go brutally wrong, yet once the bitterness of one’s existence begins to be even dimly realized, an escape attempt is inevitable. Therefore, in Mr. Banks’s fiction, every awakening mind is immediately at risk. Not to be aware of the implacable forces bent on keeping one down is to be, in the most absolute way, a victim – used, mute, manipulated and finally, in what seems a rather minimal step, dead. To be alive, then, to try for some sense of meaning in life, is to be deeply vulnerable from within as well as without – to be, in essence, a tragic figure.

“Former Marine,” the opening story in Banks’s 2013 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, fits Tallent’s description almost exactly. The central figure in the story is a seventy-year-old former Marine named Connie. The locution is important: former Marine, not ex-Marine. “[Y]ou’re never an ex-Marine, Jack,” Connie tells his son, a New York state trooper. Connie’s other sons are Chip, a Plattsburgh police officer, and Buzz, who works as a prison guard. (The boys’ all-American names are one outward manifestation of their father’s staunchly traditional notion of what constitutes a family.)

Connie, who lives in a trailer he inherited from his father, has lost his job at a local auction house and has embarked on a late career as a bank robber to make ends meet. A proud man who believes that it is a father’s responsibility to care for his children, and not the other way around, he would rather live as an outlaw than confess his situation to his sons. “Of course he’s okay financially,” he thinks at one point, in response to a question from Jack. “He’s the father. Still the man of the house. A former Marine.”

The repeated reference to Connie’s erstwhile military career carries with it the weight of nostalgia for a time, long passed, in which life was more clearly defined and comprehensible. As a younger man, Connie’s sense of self-worth was located in his ability to take care of his sons after his wife abandoned the family “so she could go off to live with an artist in a hippie commune in New Mexico.” (The wife’s free spirit is diametrically opposed to Connie’s slavish adherence to duty.) But when the bottom falls out of the real estate market, Connie finds himself unable to make payments on his trailer, or to pay off the loans he took so that he could do things like send one son to college and another to Hawaii on a honeymoon. “How can he explain this to his sons without them thinking he’s pathetic and weak and stupid?” Banks writes.

The particularly masculine strain of pridefulness is typical of Banks’s work, as are the fractured relationships between father and sons. In “Former Marine,” the family relationships are strained further as a result of the brothers’ jobs in law enforcement. They represent for Connie the full force of institutional censure as well as a vivid reminder of the price to be paid for the choices he has made in the name of pride. “Jesus Christ, Dad, make sense,” Buzz says after the boys discover what their father has been up to. “There’s two of us standing here who can arrest you! Is that what you want? To be arrested by your own sons? And make the third your prison guard?”

This scene takes place in a hospital room where Connie has been taken after running his car off an icy road. Winter is a constant, claustrophobic presence in much of Banks’s fiction: it pervades the novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, and in “Former Marine” it serves as an instrument of deliverance for Connie, setting him on the path to a typically tragic end.

While it is true that Banks is a moralist, however, he is not judgmental, and it is significant that Connie is not cast as a villain in the story, but rather as a plaintively sympathetic character. Indeed, his insistence on his status as a former Marine points to a critique of American society that simmers just below the surface in Banks’s story. If the brothers represent institutional order by virtue of their jobs, Connie represents the class of American that has volunteered to serve their country by enlisting in the armed forces, only to be summarily forgotten once their term of service is up. Connie repeatedly insists that there is no such thing as an ex-Marine, but his own untenable situation seems to put the lie to this notion: at seventy years of age, he finds himself unemployed, unable to make payments on his trailer or to purchase the medical supplies he needs to live, and without recourse to a military pension or support.

In the story’s final irony, it is Connie’s service pistol that provides him the escape he seeks – from the sclerotic life he has endured and from his dreadful realization that he has failed to live up to the promise he made to take care of himself so that his boys do not have to. For a man as full of pride as Connie, the pull of family responsibility is a weight that drags him down and ultimately crushes him. “They would still be a family,” Connie insists to himself, “the four of them, and he would still be the father, the head of the household, because you’re never an ex-father, any more than you’re an ex-Marine.”

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