Pushcart 2015: Russell Banks, “Blue” from The Barcelona Review, #82

Art by sqbr (modified)

Art by sqbr (modified)

Ventana steps off the number 33 bus at 103rd Street and North-west Seventh Avenue in Miami Shores. It’s almost 6:00 P.M., and at this time of year the city stays hot and sticky thick till the sun finally sets at 8:00. She walks quickly back along Seventh, nervous about carrying so much cash, thirty-five one-hundred-dollar bills. She doesn’t want to pay for the car with a check and then have to wait till the check clears before she can drive it home—no way a used-car dealer who doesn’t know her personally will accept a check from a black woman and let her take the goods home before the check clears. She wants the car now, today, so she can drive to work at Aventura tomorrow and for the first time park in the employees’ lot and on Sunday after church drive her own damn car, drive her own damn car, to the beach at Virginia Key with Gloria and the grandkids.

Since this story is available online (thank you, Barcelona Review ) I’m not going to worry about spoilers; this makes it easier to talk about. However, I urge any reader here who hasn’t yet read the story to do so before proceeding. Like any horror story, the effect is in cumulative construction and the intensification of suspense, and is always best enjoyed first-hand and unspoiled.

Horror story? Some, including the author, might be surprised to hear it described that way. But that’s how I was thinking of it, from the first paragraph. I suppose “suspense” might be another word. “A metaphoric description of daily life for a significant portion of the American population” would work, too. I was a nervous wreck, reading it.

What is she going on about now, you wonder.

Ventana is a decent, reasonable woman moving into middle age, her kids grown, her husband now an ex. She’s been saving $100 a month for nearly 10 years, and has decided on this day to buy a car with the $3500. And I knew, as soon as I read the first paragraph, that something awful was going to happen to this woman. Because why create such a likeable, sympathetic character, and put her in such a banal situation, if not to put her through hell – my favorite writing advice from Steve Almond.

The suspense as I read was in what kind of disaster Ventana would encounter. A random mugging on her way to the car dealership? The more sophisticated robbery of hucksterism by a couple of greedy salespeople who know a pigeon when they see one and have the plucking down to a science? The snarling guard dog she’s locked in the lot with? The random teenager ambling by in the night? The absurd callousness of the fire department rescue squad? The news crew in full vulture mode? The life-or-death roulette every black person plays in every encounter with the police?

A horror story of everyday life.

It’s quieter than usual out there in the world beyond the fence. Traffic is light, and no one is on the street—she can see Seventh Avenue all the way north to the bus stop at 103rd and in the opposite direction down to Ninety-fifth Street, where her pink shotgun bungalow is located three doors off Seventh, the windows dark, no one home. The narrow wooden garage she emptied out a week ago and where she planned to shelter her car tonight is shut and still emptied out, unused, waiting. Along Seventh the streetlights suddenly flare to life. The number 33 bus, nearly empty, rumbles past. A police cruiser speeds by in the opposite direction, lights flashing like the Fourth of July.

The story is included in Banks’ 2014 collection, A Permanent Member of the Family. In a generally positive review of that book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Malcolm Forbes criticizes this one story as “so pock-marked with plot holes the reader is forced to suspend disbelief to make it work.” If you look at it as your typical realism, that’s a fair point – Would even the most stereotypically bloodsucking leech of a car salesperson forget a customer is on the lot and lock up for the night? Is the Miami-Dade public service sector really so incompetent as to tell a 911 caller a rescue isn’t a rescue, but a break-in, and the local police precinct should be called instead? Is any news crew really so worried about makeup and lighting and camera angles as to walk away from a woman trapped behind a spiked fence with a snarling guard dog because the story just isn’t interesting enough? For that matter, is a 47-year-old woman going to climb on top of a Ford Escape (in this case, not so much of an escape) to evade attack, and go to sleep, when she has a cell phone in her purse?

That cell phone brings in an interesting line of inquiry: why doesn’t she call someone? Is the fear of looking ridiculous so strong, as to be life-threatening? Has human trust eroded to the point where we can’t depend on others in emergencies? Is it vanity, foolishness – or fear of the connection, the indebtedness, the possibility of refusal? I know times when I’ve asked for help, and times when I’ve paid for services I could ill afford because I was too afraid to ask for help. But if my life were in danger? Why did Banks include the cell phone in the story? What element of character was he revealing? Was he giving us a way to blame the victim? Is this yet another catastrophe Ventana faces – being blamed for her own doom?

I don’t see plot holes at all, because I don’t see the story as realism. I’d rather see the entire story as a metaphor for the kinds of dangers someone like Ventana – a middle-aged black woman with no particular status or power, but a strong sense of pride and decency – faces every day of her life. If the random thieves don’t get you, the greed just might. If the cops don’t shoot you, there’s still the guard dog. Life as suspense, moving through one peril at a time. And sure, there’s a cell phone in her purse, but that means exposing herself in a position of weakness, and seeing that weakness in the other’s eyes with every meeting from then on. And there’s the usual places to call for help, but help never comes, because a black woman in mortal danger just doesn’t play as well on the 11 o’clock news as a cat stuck in a tree. And it’s all her own fault, anyway.

Now, if I read it that way, I see the point of view of the story as: in the end, it’s nature that’s gonna get us. But not nature in its natural state: Nature, refashioned into a form needed by human possessiveness, to fit a need created by human failings. Maybe that’s what we feel gripping our leg, right now.

I don’t think this requires suspension of disbelief at all. I think it may be the most realistic story I’ve read in a long time. And that is pretty horrifying.

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2 responses to “Pushcart 2015: Russell Banks, “Blue” from The Barcelona Review, #82

  1. I found this a very interesting read, Karen. Like you I don’t see plot holes. I don’t feel the need to look for a plot. As I read the story I felt as if I was on a journey that took me deeper and deeper into Ventana’s character and her life. I identified with her more and more as the story progressed. I felt the suspense right from the start.
    You have asked some very interesting questions, especially about the cell phone. I’ve been there too.
    I now want to substitute other characters for Ventana and think about how the story would have played out in each case.
    Lots to think about. Thank you, Karen.

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