In The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks tells a story that begins with a school bus accident. Using four different narrators, Banks creates a small-town morality play that addresses one of life's most agonizing questions: when the worst thing happens, who do you blame?
Told from the points of view of four different characters, "The Sweet Hereafter" examines a small town as it attempts to cope with the loss of so many lives and who to blame for such an act. Dolores Driscoll recounts the morning of the school bus accident; Billy Ansel was following the bus, watching his children as the contentedly rode to school; Mitchell Stephens, Esq., smells a lawsuit in the air and wants to be the one to gather the folks of Sam Dent into a army of victims; Nichole Burnell, a young girl now bound to a life in a wheelchair, is the one person upon whom the future of the town lies. It's remarkable storytelling, delving into the darker side of small-town life, with each of the characters surviving his or her own tragedies, separate from the accident, and yet they still find the strength to rise above something potentially even more devastating than the accident itself. A fantastic book.
Having said that, I love both the book and the movie, for reasons I'm not sure I can explain. The movie was actually one of the first DVDs I ever bought, at a time when DVDs were still kind of magical, and I watched it backwards and forwards. I listened to the commentary tracks; I watched the documentaries. Nowadays, who has time for that kind of investment in a flimsy plastic disc?
But the book. Four different narrators, each distinct and fully realized. The back of the book describes it as a "morality play," but the book lacks the obviousness suggested by such a label. Morality, of course, is an issue in the book, but it's not presented in stark right-or-wrong terms. My judgements of each of the characters changes with each read. Is Mitchell Stephens a crusader or a lawyer? Is Nicholl courageous or naive? Is Billy capable of seeing the world clearly, or are his decisions invalidated by the grief which has destroyed him?
All in all, it's a lovely book, translated into an equally lovely movie. I can't recommend either highly enough, and I wish I could find the eloquence to explain why.
So let’s take a look at it. After the disclaimers, a warning: It is impossible to make the point I want to make without mentioning details of the plot, so there will be spoilers.
The Sweet Hereafter takes place entirely in a small American town in Upstate New York. It is told in five parts by four different narrators, each of which has his or her own, very distinctive voice – something that Russell Banks handles very well here: The language that the narrators use does not only serves to tell them apart but also contributes to their characterization and to clarifying their relation to the novel’s central event, a school bus accident in which several children have died. The bus driver’s style is chatty as she attempts to distract herself from the terrible moment when she caused the bus to swerve off the road; the voice of the father who lost two children is detached and matter-of-fact as he is still under shock from which he will possibly never recover; the voice of the lawyer who persuades several of the bereft parents into a compensation lawsuit feels like a court address as he battles with the feelings of guilt nagging at him and attempts to justify himself; and the voice of the girl who survived the accident with her legs paralyzed is defiant as she not only copes with her disability but even tries to draw strength and confidence from it.
On its most obvious level, The Sweet Hereafter is a novel about greed and what it does to a community; it shows how an unscrupulous lawyer exploits the loss of grieving parents, and how those parents are only too willing to give in to his seduction (on this level, the lawyer does come across like something of a snake oil merchant and I think there may be reminiscences of Melville’s Confidence Man). The town community is close to breaking apart, and it is only when the parents and the lawyer are forced to relinquish the lawsuit that the town is finally healed. From this perspective, the novel tells a story of redemption and even is, in spite of the tragedy at its heart, quite uplifting in its overall effect.
That on its own would have made for a nice, if possibly somewhat forgettable novel, but there is more to The Sweet Hereafter than that. On another level – a level that is both more general and more individual – it is a novel about the way a single, unforeseen event can rupture apparently settled lives. The event itself – the bus accident – is never directly represented, it is a void, a lacuna that sharply divides everything into a Before and an After. It is probably from this level that the novel’s stems, insofar as the disruptive force of the event is such that even the survivors and the bereaved parents have been touched by death and passed into a different existence, have in some way died themselves. Of course, their hereafter is not particularly sweet, so the title is highly ironic, but even so the romanticisation it denotates marks one way to cope with the catastrophic event. And the novel traces many ways to deal with the disruption the event has caused, not only for its point of view characters but for the whole town; the lawsuit which was at the centre of the first layer becoming just one coping strategy among many on this level. And the ending, viewed from this perspective, is far more ambiguous – while some people do manage to cope with the desaster and its consequences, some are destroyed by it, and it is quite clear that everyone will be bearing its scars. Even Nichole (the surving school girl), who appears to have become a stronger person after surviving the accident has paid for this with the loss of use of her legs, while others sink ever deeper into lethargy and alcoholism.
The Sweet Hereafter, however, is still not done yet, and there is another layer of meaning to be unearthed if one digs just a little deeper, and this layer is mainly concerned with perception. Or more precisely, with the unreliability of perception which is a theme that runs through the whole novel from start to finish, starting with the bus accident itself, which was caused by the driver seeing something on the road which was not there – or maybe it was, we never really find out and remain as much in the dark about it as the bus driver herself. The bereaved father is unable to view the women he was having an affair with the same way as he did before, she has stopped being desirable for him. When the lawyer persuades the parents of the dead children to file a lawsuit he does so by shifting their perception, first by turning their tragedy into a source of possible profit, second by putting the blame for the accident on an instution that would be able to pay compensation. And Nicole has been sexually abused by her father for years, but none of the grown-ups has noticed, or wanted to notice. This thematic cluster culminates when Nicole places her deposition and lies about what she has seen – but although she lies about having actually seen the speed at which the bus was going, she may very well be right about it, as only the bus driver is contradicting her and she is not exactly reliable herself (and not even quite certain about what she has seen, either). So Nichole may be telling the truth even as she is lying, which of course is precisely what novels do – we might see a metafictional twist hidden there, if we were so inclined.
One could probably find more, if one kept looking hard enough for it, but I think I made my point. It is a bit like Zeno’s paradox, the one about Achilles and the turtle – just as Achilles is unable to catch up with the turtle even as their distance shrinks towards the infinitesimally small, there always remains a residue of unresolved significance in a work of literary fiction, a surplus of meaning which may grow smaller and smaller with each repeated reading but never disappears completely and always promises more things to discover.
The only downside to this novel, which wasn't so bad I guess, is that I wanted to know a little bit more about the people who narrate the book because they were all so very interesting. I also wanted to hear from a few of the other people mentioned in the book who aren't given a chance to speak.
But "The Sweet Hereafter" was different for me. I’d heard so many good things about the movie that I couldn’t wait to see director Atom Egoyan’s vision of Russell Banks’ novel about a school bus accident and its shattering effect on the people in a small town. The movie did not disappoint. It was a great example of good film storytelling, revealing complex characters with a minimum of Hollywood gloss and formula. I was very moved by "The Sweet Hereafter" (the movie).
So, when I came to "The Sweet Hereafter" (the book) several months after watching the movie, I had high expectations. Russell Banks did not disappoint, either. In fact, he goes the film one better (as all great books do) by delving into the heart and mind of a character the film pushes to one side: the driver of the school bus.
The novel begins and ends with Dolores Driscoll, the forty-something woman who was behind the wheel of the school bus when it skidded off the road one winter morning and plunged into a reservoir. In the book, Dolores is a sympathetic character; we feel her overwhelming grief and guilt over the accident which killed 14 of the town’s children.
Banks is smart to begin "The Sweet Hereafter" with Dolores’ voice. Not only does it orient us to the basic details of the accident, it also immediately polarizes our sympathies for the woman. As the town gradually comes to blame her for what happens, it is heartbreaking since (through the eyes of Dolores, at least) we know it was truly an accident, not negligence. By the end of the novel, Dolores has been almost completely ostracized and there is a heartbreaking scene at the town’s annual demolition derby that will crumble even the most jaded reader. The rest of the novel is like an overture building to this one powerful scene at the derby where Dolores feels the eyes of the town on her as she carries her crippled husband up into the grandstands. By the time Dolores has found her seat, there won’t be a dry eye in the house. (Interestingly enough, it’s also a scene which never made its way onto the screen.)
Dolores is just one of four characters who, through their own voices, tell the story of the accident. There’s also Billy Ansel, a loving father of two who was following the school bus when it smashed through the guardrail. And Mitchell Stephens, the city lawyer who invades the town like "a heat-seeking missile" before the 14 bodies are even buried. And Nichole Burnell, the high school’s most popular girl who was paralyzed in the accident.
Four distinct voices, four versions of the events—it’s like interviewing traffic accident witnesses who stood on four different corners. Each character brings along enough emotional baggage to keep a psychiatrist booked for years to come. As in the movie, the most compelling and chilling story belongs to Nichole whose secret is even more shattering than the bus accident itself.
How these lives intersect and intertwine is part of Banks’ mastery. He’s been good before ("Rule of the Bone," "Cloudsplitter"), but here he is great, achieving a true peak in his career as a teller of stories which have a profound effect on the reader. "The Sweet Hereafter" (the movie) was so good because, I think, it had such a firm foundation: "The Sweet Hereafter" (the novel). No matter which medium you choose, I guarantee you won’t walk away from the story unmoved. "The Sweet Hereafter" haunts.
“Nothing. Except that his tongue came out and licked dry lips. Then I recognized it: I’ve seen it a hundred times, but it still surprises and scares me. It’s the opaque black-glass look of a man who recently learned of the death of his child. It’s the face of a person who’s gone to the other side of life and is no longer even looking back at us. It always has the same history, that look: at the moment of the child’s dying, the man follows his child into darkness, like he’s making a last attempt to save it; then, in panic, to be sure that he himself has not died as well, the man turns momentarily back toward us, maybe he even laughs then or says something weird, for he sees only darkness there, too; and how he has returned to where his child first disappeared, fixing onto one of the bright apparitions that linger here. It’s not a pretty look; it’s downright spooky” (p. 102).
Out of context, this paragraph may not sound like much. In context, it can ruin your day … give you nightmares … take with it the last peaceful evening you’ve ever spent … if you’re now a parent.
If you’re not, I’m not sure. Maybe it wouldn’t mean much.
I haven’t read anything like The Sweet Hereafter since John Fowles’s The Collector, back in the sixties – which could well say more about me as a reader of current literature than about Russell Banks as a writer of the same. In any case, I’ll risk saying that this novel is sui generis. Four distinct voices; and all four, authentic (at least to this reader’s eyes and ears). Quite an accomplishment – and something very few writers (once again, in my limited experience) know how to do well.
Apart from a stylistic tour de force, Russell Banks accomplishes a psychological study par excellence. I have rarely read – then consequently seen, felt, smelled – four characters as sharply as I did the four in The Sweet Hereafter. You may not like some of these four. But believe me: you won’t forget any of them anytime soon.
And the story? Yes, the story is harrowing – but not told without a dollop of humor now and again. Without that occasional narrative lagniappe, I’m not sure I could’ve made it to the end.
But I did, and can now highly recommend this novel – my first of Russell Banks’s, but certainly not my last.
One additional citation – and this one from the bus driver:
“That done, though, I kept myself away from all town functions, church affairs, meetings, bake sales, and so forth, and more or less oriented myself west and south, faced our life towards Lake Placid, where I had to take Abbott twice a week for his physical therapy, anyhow. Naturally, I no longer drove the school bus – two weeks after the accident, the school board mailed me a certified letter saying my services were no longer required, but I had already made that decision for myself, thank you. And since Eden Schraft never called me, the way she usually did, about carrying the mail in the summer months, I gave that up, too; a bit more reluctantly, however, than I gave up the bus, for I had no terrible associations with that particular job. Now, whenever I saw one of those big yellow International school buses on the road, I simply had to look away or else concentrate on a single detail, like the sum of the numbers on the number plate or the poker hand the numbers made, until the thing was gone from view” (p. 223).
Welcome to America, the Land of Opportunity – where the roads are all paved in gold, and which “can be an interesting town (country) when you see it from a tourist’s perspective” (p. 223).
By way of conclusion, I’ll cite Banks’s own conclusion: a small-town demolition derby – an apt metaphor, I assume, for the larger story. I’ll risk a further assumption – namely, that ‘Boomer’ (the last car standing in the derby, and which formerly belonged to the ill-fated bus driver whose thoughts I cited above) might well signal a generation just a ‘derby’ or two away from posterity and the grave. If my assumption is correct, Banks’s inspired choice is a trope I’d like to quietly applaud.
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.
Definitely a worthwhile read. I had seen the movie years ago and of course, the book was way better. I did think the use of the "Pied Piper of Hamlin" in the movie was poignant but the portrayal of Nicole and her relationship with her father was contradictory to the feelings that motivate her in the book. I also didn't quite understand the lawyer's motivations when I watched the movie, and now he's quite clear. I was most affected by the ending of the novel (not part of the movie for obvious reasons), so I'm glad I took the time to read it.
But the content, the aftermath of a school bus accident that kills so many young children, is an interesting topic that is not used in many novels. If you have young children or recently lost a loved one to an auto accident, you may not be interested in this book, however.
I struggled with the voices of the characters too much, however. The bus driver, the New York City lawyer, the owner of the service station, and the fourteen year-old victim--their stories are all told in a similar voice, a very professional one. And, as such, I didn't find them believable.
Based on this story, Banks has a decent grasp on the art of fiction, but the whole thing falls apart when he tries to get into his character's voices. Unfortunately, this causes the whole work to unravel.