A dying man comes clean

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – During a career stretching almost half a century, Russell Banks has published an extraordinary collection of brave, morally imperative novels. The same marrow-delving impulse runs through them all, but otherwise it would be difficult to characterise such a vast and diverse body of work. Ranging across history and around the world, Banks has written about the abolitionist John Brown, political turmoil in Liberia, the plight of homeless teens and so much more. He traces the forces that influence whole societies as deftly as he explores the impulses that drive ordinary people.

At 80, Banks understands the mingled triumphs and humiliations of a long, complicated life. The central character of his new novel, Foregone, is Leo Fife, a documentary filmmaker known to his Canadian fans as ‘the Ken Burns of the North’. Leo has stopped cancer treatments and resigned himself to the inevitable. His life, once so illustrious, now hovers in the strange confluence of conflicting hospice timelines – suspended at the final precipice while he rushes frantically through the inventory of his past.

We meet Leo in that twilight moment, when a CBC crew arrives to interview him about his documentaries on the Vietnam War. Back in the day, he hung around with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. His first investigative film became the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. At the height of his fame, he broke important news about Agent Orange. Presumably, his recollections of that tumultuous era will serve as a critical capstone to his legendary career.

But Banks has constructed Foregone so that nothing in front or behind the camera is stable. Leo’s long-suffering wife is dead set against this exhausting interview, and, in any case, his collapsing body makes completing the project unlikely. The director, Leo’s old protege, comes off as a heartless exploiter, but Leo has his own reasons for sitting before the camera that he spent a lifetime pointing at others.

Once the living room is darkened and Leo is wheeled beneath the spotlight, it’s clear he has no intention of being guided by any of the director’s questions. On the contrary, he insists on using this setup to expose a cowardly life riddled with episodes of betrayal and deception. “I just sort of want to get on to the stuff about your career as a Canadian filmmaker,” the director whines. But Leo won’t have it. “For forty-five years, all my years in Canada, from the day I went out and bought my first 16-millimetre camera, I exposed corruption, mendacity, and hypocrisy in government and business,” Leo told the director. “Now, with your camera, I’m exposing myself. My corruption, my mendacity, my hypocrisy.”

The film crew may be frustrated, at least initially, by the off-topic anecdotes that Leo insists on reciting, but they’re terrifically compelling to us – tales of a young man more determined to craft his persona than his art. Handsome and intense, Leo once attracted devotion but not real success. He constructed and abandoned families the way a novellist composes and discards flawed manuscripts.

Drawing at times on the broad outlines of his own life, Banks presents the story of a man tearing through the affections of others in search of a sense of purpose commensurate with his ego. In many ways, this is a well-worn story in America and American literature – the facile White male darting from responsibilities he considers too restrictive and too beneath him, a mindset immortalised by John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. But Banks has embedded that self-indulgent tragedy in the larger context of an anguished confession. “There’s no longer any undone future work to protect and promote. No unrealised career ambitions. No one left to impress. Nothing to win or lose,” Banks wrote. “This is his last chance to stop lying.”

Chapter by chapter, Foregone moves between Leo’s dramatic past and his necrotic present, between his serial betrayals up and down the East Coast years ago and his impending demise, stuck in a wheelchair in a pool of white light. In that sense, Foregone may remind some readers of Richard Flanagan’s remarkable first novel, Death of a River Guide, which takes place entirely during the few minutes it takes for a man to drown.

“It’s the cancer that has freed him to dig up and expose the lie,” Banks wrote. But that same disease and the attendant painkillers have “dissolved chunks of his temporal lobe” and addled Leo’s mind, calling into question the veracity of his revelations. “Fife’s memories shift like slides in a projector,” Banks wrote. As the novel progresses, it complicates our efforts to establish the sequence of events, to distinguish self-invention from self-abasement, even to know exactly what Leo is really saying aloud to his astonished witnesses.

Without ever collapsing into nonsense, it’s a remarkably fluid use of prose to represent the experience of delirium while wrestling to the final moments with the challenge of absolution.

Ultimately, we can’t divine the truth of Leonard Fife’s life or even the efficacy of his confession. But in this complex and powerful novel, we come face to face with the excruciating allure of redemption. Even as Leo’s memories fade, his hunger for forgiveness comes into radiant focus.