Book Review: Social “Darling”

This novel about an American radical of the ’60s who flees to Africa displays a cool grasp of the barbaric machinations of globalization.

The Darling by Russell Banks. (HarperCollins)

By Harvey Blume

Hannah Musgrave, the main character of veteran novelist Russell Banks’s flawed but memorable book, is in her late fifties when she sits down in an Adirondack farmhouse to tell her story. She informs us that back in the late 1960s and early 1970s she had been a Weather woman. In saying so, she isn’t confessing to having once reported barometric pressure on an evening newscast. She’s saying that she belonged to the Weatherman (later the Weather Underground), a group that broke away from Students for a Democratic Society in 1969 in order to expedite a revolution.

The group encapsulated the best and worst tendencies of the New Left — the idealism and the nihilism, the passion and the presumption. While it didn’t bring revolution any closer, the Weatherman enjoyed name recognition and media glamour. The latter explains why filmmakers and writers have been drawn to the group recently: the Weatherman is a convenient hook on which to hang a cautionary tale about the ’60s.

Hannah gives the usual names and places — Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, the Days of Rage in Chicago — an obligatory nod in her account. What makes her story different is that she was largely immune to sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll Guilt drove her to the extremes represented by the Weathermen, not the celebratory aspects of ’60s youth culture. She doesn’t complain about being so guilt-ridden. If anything, she’s proud of it. The world, as Hannah sees it, is defined by greed, cruelty, and indifference. Guilt is the appropriate response; if you’re not guilty, you’re a fool.

She is no fool. Raised in a high-toned Massachusetts town, her mother taught her the fine points of upper class WASP deportment. Her father, though, Dr. Benjamin Musgrave, a pediatrician and world-renowned author of books about parenting, inculcated her into the ways of guilt. By the time we get to know Hannah, she’s a connoisseur, quick to distinguish guilt from superficially similar states of mind. “Mere regret or remorse,” she declares, “mainly work to separate people from one another.” Guilt, however, as imparted by Dr. Musgrave to his only child, was “warmly humanizing” to her. “Even when I was a child,” she recalls, “it was guilt that had let me join the species.”

Readers of Banks’s previous novel, Cloudsplitter, will recognize the connection here to John Brown, the central figure in that book. Brown may have provided Banks with the segue to the Weatherman, since he was one of the very few non-Third World heroes the group honored Hannah longs to make a comparable sacrifice, but by the late ’60s she finds that blacks are more interested in standing on their own politically than in relying on heroic expressions of white guilt. She is devastated, for example, when white students like her are ejected from the Civil Rights Movement. In her “chosen line of work,” she says, she had “been deprived of an essential tool, and that tool was black people.”

Hannah finds enough down-and-out black people to feed her guilt trip when she flees to Liberia in 1975, as Weatherman winds down. But Woodrow Sundiata, the mid-level government functionary she marries in Monrovia, turns out to be as prim and proper as the Massachusetts churchgoers of her youth Worse yet, he takes his Christianity more seriously. It’s true that there is another side to Woodrow, but the rituals that bind him to his tribal world are inaccessible to Hannah. In any case, what calls her back to Liberia after she flees its increasingly savage civil war has little to do with Woodrow, or even Dillon, William, and Paul, the three children she bore by him. What brings her back is feeling for and obligation to a band of captive chimpanzees.

Hannah has become the caretaker of a cohort of chimps who had been subject to medical experiments by an American pharmaceutical company. The animals trigger something in her beyond just guilt, and she describes it beautifully. (In this novel, Banks writes best about animals and atrocities. Human interactions — short of massacre — inspire him less). Hannah calls the chimps dreamers, because, like people when they dream, they’re mute. She records that, “until the dreamers entered my life, I was locked into a material world whose only exit lay in an imagined future, a utopian fantasy. Until I met the dreamers, I was stuck with a mere “ideology of exit.”

The amount of time Banks devotes to Hannah’s experience of Africa suggests it is an update of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Banks has a cool grasp of how global economic and political pressure can drive a small, dependent country like Liberia over the civilized edge. And he has enormous ambitions as a writer. The Darling stretches from plantation slavery to the CIA’s penetration of West Africa, from an Adirondack chicken farm to a Liberian village where Hannah is seen as Mammi Watta, a pale and dangerous spirit. The book’s range becomes one of its drawbacks: too many of its characters are shallow. But the deeper problem is inseparable from the novel’s chief virtue, namely, the sometimes eloquent but always joyless argument it makes for guilt.

When Hannah returns for good to the United States just after 9/11, she recognizes that the attack renders what’s left of her Weather politics well nigh unintelligible. In any case, her idealism had been pretty much extinguished back in Monrovia, when she found that Dillon, William, and Paul had been swept up in civil war barbarism, and renamed, Fly, Worse-than-Death, and Demonology. Hannah has managed to save neither the dreamers nor her kin. She concludes: “In the months that followed [9/11], I saw that the story of my life could have no significance in the larger world. In the new history of America, mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.”

Is guilt the best that can be expected of people? Hannah Musgrave finds no cause to doubt it.

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