Only in this century, George Orwell once pointed out, has the death of a child come to be seen as a violation of the natural order. Until the advent of modern medicine parents could expect to bury at least one of their children. But such historical perspective is no comfort to the survivors of a terrible tragedy like the school bus wreck that lies at the heart of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter. As most of us would, the townspeople of the Adirondack village of Sam Dent, N.Y., must find somebody to blame for the loss of 14 children. The problem is, whom? And how will the guilty atone for their crime?

Or, to put it in terms more familiar to contemporary Americans, exactly how much can the guilty be made to pay? Attorney Mitchell Stephens, who has been hired by the parents, knows the answer depends upon who is being asked to pay. ”Anytime I hear about a case like that school bus disaster up there,” confides the Manhattan sharpie, ”I turn into a heat-seeking missile, homing in on a target that I know in my bones is going to turn out to be some bungling corrupt state agency or some multinational corporation that’s cost-accounted the difference between a ten-cent bolt and a million-dollar out-of-court settlement.”

Not, in other words, driver Dolores Driscoll, who was at the wheel in a blinding snowstorm when her load of 34 children plunged through a guardrail, down an embankment, and sank in a flooded sand pit. Even though some of them believe she was at fault, few locals wish to hold Dolores legally responsible. And besides, she has no money.

”There are no accidents,” Stephens insists. ”I don’t even know what the ! word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does.” But the lawyer is an outsider in a rural village almost as remote from Manhattan as if it were in Montana or Alaska. Many in Sam Dent accept the existence of accidents, invoke God’s will, and seek comfort in religion. But not Billy Ansel, the lawyer’s antagonist, a service-station owner who witnessed the crash that completed what he bitterly calls ”the Vietnamization of my domestic life.” Having lost his wife to cancer and his twin son and daughter in the wreck, Ansel has become ”the reverse, the opposite, of a Christian. For me, now, the only reality was death.” An ex-football star and war hero, he haunts the town like a ghost.

Yet even in his alcoholic despair, Ansel thinks it is important that the town not tear itself to pieces in a protracted lawsuit that could make some villagers obscenely rich from the deaths of their children. Banks, whose earlier novels (Affliction, Continental Drift, Trailerpark) have shown him to be adept at infusing the lives of ordinary working people with passion and drama, draws the conflict sharply. Ansel’s only ally — although he doesn’t know it — is young Nichole Burnell, a lovely 14-year-old cheerleader, permanently crippled in the wreck, who has her own more intimate reasons for wishing to bring the lawsuit to an end. As things turn out, it’s Nichole who holds the cards.

Narrated in turn by each of its four protagonists (Dolores Driscoll, Billy Ansel, Mitchell Stephens, and Nichole Burnell), The Sweet Hereafter represents a brilliantly concise example of the storyteller’s art. Too brilliant, actually. Wasting not a word, the polished surface of Banks’ narrative and the novel’s almost mathematically taut construction succeed in avoiding pathos at the cost of real feeling. For all the potential power of its theme, the novel lies flat on the page. Perhaps that’s because, with the attention focused upon the aftermath, the reader never actually believes in the lives of the children. B

The Sweet Hereafter
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