Russell Banks was born on March 28, 1940 in a small town in Massachusetts but raised in North Hampshire. His father who was a plumber deserted the family early but not before he unleashed terrible violence that left them scarred for life. Domestic violence is a frequently occurring theme in Banks’s novels. He drifted for some time, going through brief marriages before settling down. Banks is a prolific writer having written a dozen novels and story collections that won him several awards including the Guggenheim.
Relevance of the Title
Banks choose the title Affliction, inspired by the writings of Simone Weil the twentieth century philosopher. He had been looking for a word that suggested disease and suffering. It also needed to have a moral dimension. The word “affliction” has religious undertones too for the author. The affliction refers to the ‘disease’ that consumes Wade.
This theme runs as a thread through many of Banks’s novel linking them up. Violence had been part of Banks’s own childhood until his father abandoned his family. In Affliction, descriptions of violence perpetrated by the father come as a series of flashbacks. There is mention of the grandfather also in this context. In Affliction, the father singles out Wade for punishment; it is not just physical punishment that he suffers but also belittling and mental cruelty. Wade grows up destroyed by the cruelty he suffers at the hands of his father. He copes by withdrawing from everything around him. He grows up finding it difficult to handle the pressures and disappointments of adulthood.
Working class poverty is a theme that Banks has explored in his fiction repeatedly. In Affliction, Wade Whitehouse works at several jobs to make ends mean but still cannot escape the privations that poverty inflicts on him. Sociologists have often commented on the link between poverty and alcoholism – one begets the other.
Wade’s loneliness comes from the state of his mind. To get away from the effects of his father’s drunken rage, Wade had begun withdrawing into himself. Later he feels that he lives in one world while the rest live in another. The only person with whom he wants to bond is his daughter but everything he tries goes wrong. There is also the aspect of physical isolation as the town is in the grip of an early winter when snow cuts off access.
Wade Whitehouse wears many hats. He is the town cop, he drives the snow plough; he is an estranged son and an unstable drunk. He wishes to have custody of his daughter; a thing his ex-wife fights to prevent. His own troubled upbringing makes it impossible to connect with people at any level. He desperately wants to be a good father but does all the wrong things when he is with Jill. Wade is a man with many obsessions; he is convinced that Twombley a rich man who was out looking at some land in the company of Jack Hewitt has been killed by Jack. Like a man possessed, he pursues his theories.
He is the narrator of the story. He is Wade’s younger brother. Like Wade, he too has suffered at the hands of his father. But he escaped some of it by going off to a university He is estranged from his wife. His daughter barely knows him.
The novel is about Wade Whitehouse who is resents his poverty, resents not being able to see his daughter who lives with his ex-wife. He has a poor equation with his boss; he hates the cold as he has to be out with the snow plough in the North Hampshire winter. He is depressed and aimless. He wishes to wipe away all his miseries in one stroke and begin afresh with his daughter but he does not know where to start. It is Wade’s brother Rolfe who tells the story of Wade and his descent into paranoia and confusion. Rolfe himself has no contact with his daughter and battles his own demons.
The paranoia that haunts Wade finds expression in his pursuit of the case in which a rich man named is found dead apparently shot by his own gun in misadventure. But Wade is convinced that Twombley was killed by Jack Hewitt, his guide. Hewitt later dies by his hand. Wade is declared fugitive. There are reports that he may have escaped to Canada. Since he has no money on him, Rolfe believes that he will die soon of hunger and exposure.
The cold and snow are a metaphor for Wade’s isolation from his family and society. Banks tries to understand what makes people like Wade, Banks’s father and his grandfather behave the way they do.
I was always careful around Pop. I was a careful child. And I’m a careful adult. But at least I was never afflicted with that man’s anger.
That’s what you think.
Rolfe’s words are spoken with a touch of smugness. They are self congratulatory in tone. He seems
to suggest that Wade became the target of his father’s rage due to his carelessness.
- Not a goddamn one of you is worth a hair on that good woman’s head!
It is Glenn Whitehouse who speaks these words soon after his wife is found stone cold dead in her room. All her married life, she had been battered and bruised by her husband. Now that she is dead probably killed by his indifference to her health, he speaks of her worth.
- ”His story is my ghost life,” Rolfe says, ”and I want to exorcise it.”
It is through Rolfe’s words that we learn of Wade’s life and the demons that pursue him. Rolfe is not far removed from the same circumstances. He too is estranged from his daughter who seems to hate him with fury. Rolfe seems to carry Wade’s story like a canker that needs to be removed and recounting it seems to be the best way.