By Russell Banks
390 pages
New York: Harper Perennial, 1996.
ISBN # 0-06-092724-0

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 2002

Russell Banks gives us a Holden Caufield for the 90s. While there is a good deal of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE in RULE OF THE BONE, Banks goes far beyond Salingerís lead, and gives us Chappie (Bone) who moves far beyond the essentially introspective Caufield and into the worlds of several important other characters, as well as international travel and big time drug dealers.

Chappie Dorset lives in a small town in upstate New York with his harping mother and step-father who has sexually abused him. Not surprisingly he manages to get kicked out of the house while still in elementary school and moves in with motorcycle gang and his teen-aged buddy. Eventually a rift between the gang and the two boys leads to a fire and the one decent fellow in the gang is killed.

The two boys take off, quickly split and Chappie not only moves on in life but changes his name to the single name of Bone. Not yet ready to break with his home completely, he is living in the area and meets two marvelous characters, I-Man, a 50ish Jamaican Rasta man and 7 year old Froggie whose been sold by her mother to a child porn master.

Bone and I-Man manage to find Froggieís mother and return the girl to her in Milwaukee, and I-Man takes Bone with him back to Jamaica.

Bone meets his real father whom he knew was in Jamaica and discovers that I-Man is not only a very serious Rastafarian spiritual leader, but head of a marijuana growing ring as well. This leads to great complications and dangers and Bone gets increasingly into not only the drug culture, but drug business as well.

There is a strong quality of road story in this constant movement as Bone grows up and searches for his own inner meanings. However, it becomes very serious under the spiritual leadership of I-Man and Banks reveals his deep respect for Caribbean culture as he uses the device of this religion to help Bone get to the root questions of human meaning and existence.

In each of the Bankís novels I have read there is a serious philosophical side enriched by unforgettable characters. This is perhaps best done in this novel when heís freed by the move to Jamaica to bring us characters quite unusual to most American fiction.

I was especially amused when I-Man presents the marijuana which he grows for shipment back to the U..S. via Haiti, to be the slavesí revenge on the power center of white culture. On I-Manís view the whites used their power and violence to control the slaves, and now the pot growing Rastas are undercutting that culture by supplying a pacifying drug which cuts strongly at white power and violence.

RULE OF THE BONE isnít a perfect book. The readerís credulity is a bit stretched by just how easily Bone adapts to these totally outlandish and extremely dangerous situations, but none the less Banks amuses, entertains and challenges us along the way. A book well worth the read.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett