A teacher named Rolfe narrates his older brother’s story in the Russell Banks novel, Affliction (1989), and even if he is not likely to be a wholly reliable narrator, he can surely be trusted in pointing out his brother’s deepening affliction. Wade Whitehouse, the 41-year-old sibling, is divorced from Lillian, the only woman he has ever genuinely loved, and painfully misses having his young daughter in his care. He struggles against the wrath of his half-mad father and harbors unreasonable suspicions about the men around him, at the risk, it turns out, of losing his job.
Wade’s life starts going down the toilet. For him to be is not really to live, for he is living with a “dumb helplessness.” Or he begins to live with it. Being is all that Wade has. A helpless man is not free. A Christian couple, Wade’s sister Lena and her husband Clyde bring to the family a set of traditional religious beliefs that their relatives don’t know what to do with. Lena and Clyde can be fatuous, but that they live lives distinctly separate from those of Wade and his father is understandable. The men’s behavior creates a maelstrom increasingly difficult to control.
Affliction is cohesive, thrilling and mature. It is better than much of Faulkner, and although it is not as profound as the best of Faulkner, to me it is just as powerful as it.