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Throughout his long and impressive career, in books like CONTINENTAL DRIFT and THE SWEET HEREAFTER, Russell Banks has often focused on the stories of society’s underclass. But in his latest novel --- his first in 10 years --- he leaves behind that preoccupation to explore the life of an artist racing against his failing body to make peace with himself in his final days. As one would expect from a writer of Banks’ accomplishment, FOREGONE has its share of striking moments, but the cumulative impression of his protagonist’s extended confession about a life of “betrayals and abandonments” is less than the sum of its parts.

When a CBC film crew appears in 2018 at the Montreal apartment of well-known documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife to record a valedictory interview with the terminally ill cancer patient, their experience is nothing like the one they have been anticipating. Instead of the focused question-and-answer exchange they have meticulously prepared for, they are treated to a rambling monologue that’s revelatory and at times shocking.

With surprising volubility considering his deteriorating condition, Fife foregoes an account of his distinguished filmmaking career for a mostly unflattering description of his early years, ones that included a cross-country trip in a stolen car with a high school friend, dropping out of college in his freshman year and heading to Florida, two abandoned marriages, each of which produced a child, and even an encounter with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Boston in the early 1960s. His tales culminate in his arrival in Canada in 1968 at age 28, ostensibly as one of the more than 60,000 young Americans fleeing the Vietnam War era draft. Over time, like the filmmakers, we become “confused by the meandering route he has taken and exhausted from trying to keep up with him.”

"Banks is a beautiful writer, and it’s easy to be swept into Fife’s story, carried along on the tide of his fluid prose."

But Fife claims he has an ulterior purpose to the narrative he’s painstakingly, if episodically, fashioning as his memories “shift like slides in a projector.” His goal is less to record the story of his long career than it is to make amends to Emma, his wife of nearly 40 years, one of his former students, whom he married a decade after coming to Canada. He is determined “to save her from the fate of all those who have loved him and he did not love back,” while “trying to become at the last possible minute a different person than he has been for his entire life.” The novel alternates between what Fife represents as disclosures to Emma and recurring scenes of tension between her, an almost ghostly presence throughout the recording session, and the film crew.

Banks is a beautiful writer, and it’s easy to be swept into Fife’s story, carried along on the tide of his fluid prose. There are many vivid scenes in that account, especially some that occur in Amarillo, Texas, in the midst of his Kerouacian odyssey with his classmate Nick, or at the rural Vermont home of Stanley Reinhart, a painter and friend who has recruited Fife to teach at Goddard College, in the last hours before Fife makes the decision to walk over the border into Canada, instantly trading his old life for a new one.

But the novel’s chief frustration is that by the end we are left puzzling over which of Fife’s recollections are true, which intentionally falsified, and which the product of confabulation, the unintentional construction of false memories, to which Emma consigns most of her dying husband’s recollections. Banks is content to leave this question dangling, and it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we have been cast in the role of unwitting participants in some elaborate, cruel joke Fife has fashioned, rather than as witnesses to a moving act of atonement.

Perhaps that intention is best reflected in the words of the documentary’s ambitious director, Malcolm MacLeod, the “Ken Burns of the North” and a protege of Fife’s, contrasting essays, journalism and most documentary films that have subjects, with “poems, stories, novels, films worthy of being called art --- they’re simply statements. It’s not that they’re about nothing, it’s that they’re not about anything.”

Above all, Banks is an artist, and he also focuses on the ruthless demands of art, alluding to two of the documentaries that have made Fife’s reputation --- one concerning the secret testing of Agent Orange at a Canadian military base and another on a pedophiliac Catholic bishop. Intent on capturing his “old professor’s final confession,” Malcolm presses ahead relentlessly with the recording process, heedless of his subject’s failing strength, against Emma’s frequent demands to stop the filming, all the way up to the novel’s disturbing, emotional denouement. Throughout, the discomfort in the funereal apartment is palpable, matched only by the voyeuristic feeling engendered by watching Fife’s unfolding ordeal.

Anyone intrigued by the mood and milieu of this novel might enjoy comparing it to ones like Neil Gordon’s THE COMPANY YOU KEEP and Dana Spiotta’s EAT THE DOCUMENT, or Tim O’Brien’s short story “On the Rainy River” from THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. Less a meditation on the unreliability of memory than on the way it can be willfully manipulated, FOREGONE is sometimes moving, other times maddening. Like anything Russell Banks has written, it’s worth the time spent reading it, even if that experience, in the end, may produce more questions than answers.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 19, 2021

by Russell Banks

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0063036762
  • ISBN-13: 9780063036765