Title: The Sweet Hereafter.
Author: Russell Banks.
Genre: Literature, fiction, death, multiple narrators.
Publication Date: 1991.
Summary: When 14 children from the small town of Sam Dent are lost in a tragic school bus accident, its citizens are confronted with one of life's most difficult and disturbing questions: When the worst happens, whom do you blame, and how do you cope? Told from perspectives of parents, as well as the bus driver, and a lawyer hoping to organize the stricken parents into a mass-action law-suit against any entity that could be found liable and able to pay, the novel illuminates the mysteries and realities of love as well as grief.
My rating: 8/10
♥ I've got nothing against outsiders per se, you understand. It's just that you have to love a town before you can live in it right, and you have to live in it before you can love it right.
♥ By now there was some noise in the bus, the early morning sounds of children practicing at being adults, making themselves known to one another and to themselves in their small voices (some of them not so small) - asking questions, arguing, making exchanges, gossiping, bragging, pleading, courting, threatening, testing - doing everything we ourselves do, the way puppies and kittens at play mimic grown dogs and cats at work. It's not altogether peaceful or sweet, any more than the noises adults make are peaceful an sweet, but it doesn't do any serious harm. And because you can listen to children without fear, the way you can watch puppies tumble and bite and kittens sneak up on one another and spring without worrying that they'll be hurt by it, the talk of children can be very instructive. I guess it's because they play openly at what we grownups do seriously and in secret.
♥ They had walked to their places on Bartlett Hill Road from the smaller roads and lanes that run off it, bright little knots of three and four children gathered by a cluster of mailboxes to wait there for me - like berries waiting to be plucked, I sometimes thought as I made my descent, clearing the hillside of its children. I always enjoyed watching the older children, the seventh and eighth graders, play their music on their Walkmans and portable radios and dance around each other, flirting and jostling for position in their numerous and mysterious pecking orders, impossible for me or any adult to understand, while the younger boys and girls soberly studied and evaluated the older kids' moves for their own later use. I liked the way the older boys slicked their hair back in precise dips and waves, and the way the girls dolled themselves up with lipstick and eyeliner, as if they weren't already as beautiful as they would ever be again.
♥ Besides, I have always liked listening to the way kids talk when they're not trying to please or deceive an adult. I just perched up there in the driver's seat and drove, letting them forget all about me, while I listened to their jumble of words, songs, and shouts and cries, and it was almost as if I were not present, or were invisible, or as if I were a child again myself, a child blessed or cursed (I'm not sure which) with foresight, with the ability to see the closing off that adulthood would bring, the pleasures, the shame, the secrets, the fearfulness. The eventual silence; that too.
♥ ...and you tend to embrace with thought what you're forbidden to embrace in fact.
♥ It's a way of living with a tragedy, I guess, to claim after it happens that you saw it coming, as if somehow you had already made the necessary adjustments beforehand. I could understand that.
♥ But it was a lie, and I think we both knew it. I surely did. I still loved my wife, Lydia, and I don't think Risa loved anyone except her son, Sean. Nevertheless, we were both lonely and both burdened with strong sexual natures. But neither of us had the ability to say that to the other in a way that would not be hurtful. So, instead, we said, "I love you," and let it go at that.
♥ For instance, a man generally doesn't even know how small a woman really is until he holds an article of her clothing up in front of him, one of her nightgowns, say, and sees how small and flimsy it is and how like a child's and unlike his own, and how thick and heavy his hands seem. Women almost always appear larger to us than they actually are, and we don't have much opportunity to observe how small and delicate their bodies are in comparison to ours.
They know our size, of course, know it thoroughly, for they have felt our weight on top of them - smaller people always know the size of people who are larger than they. But we men have usually taken the physical measure of the women in our lives only with our eyes, and because we are secretly afraid of them, we tend to see women as having bodies that are at least as large as our own. I think that's one reason why a man is so often surprised by how easily he can injure a woman with his hands. Although I myself never hurt a woman with my hands. But you know how men talk to one another. Surprise is one of our main motifs. We like to pretend we're surprised by common knowledge.
♥ Mourning can be very selfish. When someone you love has died, you tend to recall best those few moments and incidents that helped to clarify your sense, not of the person who has died, but of your own self.
♥ You might think that remembering those moments is a way of keeping my family alive, but it's not; it's a way of keeping myself alive. Just as you might think my drinking is a way to numb the pain; it's not; it's a way to feel the pain.
♥ So I'd roll a joint and take off. It made the dream and the threat of travel and being surrounded by permanently poor black people whose language was incomprehensible to me both safe and real - it woke me up without scaring me.
With marijuana, you inner life and outer life merge and comfort each other. With alcohol, too, they merge, but they tend to beat up on you instead, and I didn't particularly like getting beat up on.
♥ We were a powerful couple, and I cannot think of her without feeling my heart instantly harden against the thought, because when I remember her and how powerful and happy we were and why I loved her so, I think at once of her death. Just as with the twins, Jessica and Mason. I can barely say their names without feeling the flesh of my heart turn into iron. This is not bitterness; it's what happens when you have eaten your bitterness.
♥ But twins are like that. They behave in ways, especially regarding each other, that can seem very strange to someone who is not a twin himself. They have a morality that is different from ours - at least when they are young they do - because, unlike other children, they are not inclined to imitate adults until much later. To children who are twins, even when they are not identical, the other twin is both more and less real than everyone else in the family, and they deal with each other the way we deal with ourselves alone. Which means that it's like twins are permanently stoned. I don't think that's an exaggeration.
♥ The way we deal with death depends on how it's imagined for us beforehand, by our parents and the people who surround them, and what happens to us early on. And if we believed properly in death - the way we actually do believe in taxes, for instance - and did not insist on thinking that we had it beat, we might never even have had a Vietnam war. Or any war. Instead, we believe the lie, that death, unlike taxes, can be postponed indefinitely, and we spend our lives defending that belief. Some people are very good at it, and they become our nation's heroes. Some, like me, for obscure reasons, see the lie early for what it is, fake it for a while and grow bitter, and then go beyond bitterness to... to what? To this, I suppose. Cowardice. Adulthood.
♥ Of course, I thought of Vietnam, but nothing I had seen or felt in Vietnam had prepared me for this. There was no fire and smoke or explosive noise, no wild shouts and frightened screams; instead, there was silence, broken ice, snow, and men and women moving with abject slowness: there was death, and it was everywhere on the planet and it was natural and forever; not just dying, perversely here and merely now.
♥ When a person tries to comfort me, I respond by reassuring him or her - it's usually a her - and in that way I shut her down, smothering all her good intentions by denying her need.
I can't help it, and I'm not sorry for it; I'm even a little proud. People think I'm cold and unfeeling, but that's a price I've always been willing to pay. The truth is that I'm beyond help; most people are; and it only angers me to see my sisters or my friends here in town wasting their time. To forestall or cover my anger, I jump in front of them, and suddenly I myself have turned into the person come to provide comfort, reassurance, help, whatever it is they originally desired to provide me with. I take their occasion and make it my own.
♥ A town that loses its children loses its meaning.
♥ Angry? Yes, I'm angry; I'd be a lousy lawyer if I weren't. I suppose it's as if I've got this permanent boil on my butt and can't quite sit down. Which is not the same, you understand, as being hounded by greed; although I can see, of course, that it probably sometimes looked like greed to certain individuals who were not lawyers, when they saw a person like me driving all the way up there to the Canadian border, practically, saw me camping out in the middle of winter in a windy dingy little motel room for weeks at a time, bugging the hell out of decent people who were in the depths of despair and just wanted to be left alone. I can understand that.
But it wasn't greed that put me there; it's never been greed that sends me whirling out of orbit like that. It's anger. What the hell, I'm not ashamed of it. It's who I am. I'm not proud of it, either, but it makes me useful, at least. Which is more than you can say for greed.
That's what people don't get about negligence lawyers - good negligence lawyers, I mean, the kind who go after the sloppy fat cats with their corner offices and end up nailing their pelts to the wall. People immediately assume we're greedy, that it's money we're after, people call us ambulance-chasers and so on, like we're the proctologists of the profession, and, yes, there's lots of those. But the truth is, the good ones, we'd make the same moves for a single shekel as for a ten-million-dollar settlement. Because it's anger that drives us and delivers us. It's not any kind of love, either - love for the underdog or the victim, or whatever you want to call them. Some litigators like to claim that. The losers.
No, what it is, we're permanently pissed off, the winners, and practicing law is a way to be socially useful at the same time, that's all. It's like a discipline; it organizes and controls us; probably keeps us from being homicidal. A kind of Zen is what. Some people equally pissed off are able to focus their rage by becoming cops or soldiers or martial arts instructors; those who become lawyers, however, especially litigators like me, are a little too intelligent, or maybe too intellectual is all, to become cops. (I've known some pretty smart cops, bit not many intellectual ones.) So instead of learning how to break bricks and two-by-fours with our hands or bust chain-snatchers in subways, we sneak off to law school and put on three-piece suits and come roaring out like banshees, all teeth and claws and fire and smoke.
♥ Anytime I hear about a case like that school bus disaster up there, 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 and has decided to sacrifice a few lives for the difference. They do that, work the bottom line; I've seen it play out over and over again, until you start to wonder about the human species. They're like clever monkeys, that's all. They calculate ahead of time what it will cost them to assure safety versus what they're likely to be forced to settle for damages when the missing bolt sends the bus over a cliff, and they simply choose the cheaper option. And it's up to people like me to make it cheaper to build the bus with that extra bolt, or add the extra yard of guardrail, or drain the quarry. That's the only check you've got against them. That's the only way you can ensure moral responsibility in this society. Make it cheaper.
♥ Listen, identify with the victims and you become one yourself. Victims make lousy litigators.
♥ We've all lost our children. It's like all the children of America are dead to us. Just look at them, for God's sake - violent on the streets, comatose in the malls, narcotized in front of the TV. In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. I don't know if it was the Vietnam war, or the sexual colonization of kids by industry, or drugs, or TV, or divorce, or what the hell it was; I don't know which are causes and which are effects; but the children are gone, that I know. So that trying to protect them is little more than an elaborate exercise in denial. Religious fanatics and superpatriots, they try to protect their kids by turning them into schizophrenics; Episcopalians and High Church Jews gratefully abandon their kids to boarding schools and divorce one another so they can get laid with impunity; the middle class grabs what it can buy and passes it on, like poisoned candy on Halloween; and meanwhile the inner-city blacks and poor whites in the boonies sell their souls with longing for what's killing everyone else's kids and wonder why theirs are on crack.
It's too late; they're gone; we're what's left.
And the best we can do for them, and for ourselves, is rage against what took them. Even if we can't know what it'll be like when the smoke clears, we do know that rage, for better or worse, generates a future. The victims are the ones who've given up on the future. Instead, they've joined the dead. And the rest, look at them: unless they're enraged and acting on it, they're useless, unconscious; they're dead themselves and don't even know it.
♥ And sometimes when I wake, for a few moments I'm like Risa Walker and Hartley Otto and Billy Ansel and all those other parents whose children have died and who have been unable to react with rage - the dreamed child is the real one, the dead child simply does not exist. We waken and say, "I can't believe she's gone," when what we mean is "I don't believe she exists." It's the other child, the dreamed baby, the remembered one, that for a few lovely moments we think exists. For those few moments, the first child, the real baby, the dead one, is not gone; she simply never was.
♥ She was evidently quite touched by the generosity of strangers, and I saw no reason to disabuse her of it. Some people, when terrible things happen to them, take strength from believing that other people are better than in fact they are.
♥ "Oh, Dad, hi. Hey, listen, I'm sorry about this morning, I was really bumming, and this damn phone is all fucked up...," blah blah blah, in a soft, accommodating voice that was all surface, a lid of sweetness and light over a caldron of rage and need.
♥ "Those that don't know the truth will blame Dolores. People have got to have somebody to blame, Nichole."
"But we know the truth," I said. "Don't we?"
"Yes," he said, and for the first time since before the accident, he looked me straight in the face. "We know the truth, Nichole. You and I." His large blue eyes had filled with sorrowful tears, and his whole face seemed to beg for forgiveness.
I made a small thin smile for him, but he couldn't smile back. Suddenly, I saw that he would never be able to smile again. Never. And then I realized that I had finally gotten exactly what I had wanted.
♥ I didn't know what to think of how Billy had changed since the accident. He scared me; but mostly he made me sad. He had been a noble man; and now he was ruined. The accident had ruined a lot of lives. Or, to be exact, it had busted apart the structures on which those lives had depended - depended, I guess, to a greater degree than we had originally believed. A town needs its children for a lot more than it thinks.
♥ I wondered if my own children, Reginald and William, had accomplished that for me and Abbott, if their presence in our lives had held us peacefully together all those years. When Abbott and I were young, we were so obsessed with each other, so enthralled by what we thought were our striking similarities, that if I hadn't twice gotten accidentally pregnant, we might have lost touch with everything and everyone else and maybe never would have grown up ourselves. Our obsession with each other was like the isolation that comes with great pain; it was like extreme sadness. Without our children, we might never have discovered our differences, which is what has made our abiding love for each other possible. We would have been like a pair of infatuated teenagers, drowning in each other's view of ourselves, so self-absorbed that we'd never have been able to help each other over the years the way we have.
I looked across to Billy Ansel and realized that what frightened and saddened me most about him was that he no longer loved anybody. All the man had was himself. And you can't love only yourself.
♥ All of us - Nichole, I, the children who survived the accident, and the children who did not - it was as if we were the citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, whether they memorialized us or despised us, whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs, not ours. Which, since it could be no other way, was exactly as it should be.
Nichole Burnell, Bear Otto, the Lamston kids, Sean Walker, Jessia and Mason Ansel, the Atwater and the Bilodeau kids, all the children who had been on the bus and had died and had not died, and I, Dolores Driscoll - we were absolutely alone, each of us, and even our shared aloneness did not modify the simple fact of it. And even if we weren't dead, in an important way which no longer puzzled or frightened me and which I therefore no longer resisted, we were as good as dead.