Russell Banks, a prolific American fiction writer whose work charted the inner lives of marginalized people at odds with social forces, has died at the age of 82.
Banks “passed away peacefully last night at his home in upstate (New York),” fellow author Joyce Carol Oates said Sunday on Twitter.
“I loved Russell and loved his tremendous talent and magnanimous heart,” added Oates, who, like Banks, taught writing at Princeton University. “All his work is exceptional.”
Banks’ literary agent Ellen Levine said the cause of death was cancer, according to The New York Times.
His notable works include the novels “Affliction,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Cloudsplitter,” and “Continental Drift”—the latter two of which were Pulitzer Prize finalists.
Banks won the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1995. He also served as president of the International Parliament of Writers.
His protagonists were often blue-collar, reflecting his own working-class upbringing as the son of an alcoholic plumber—a man he later said he both hated and loved. His characters struggle with poverty, drug addiction, and class and race issues.
He told a Le Monde interviewer in 2016 that he considered himself lucky as a writer, but pessimistic as a citizen of a country where middle-class Americans no longer felt their children would have a better life.
He claimed allegiance to an American literary tradition that goes back to Mark Twain “whose work is generated by the love of people who are mocked and mocked,” he once told The Guardian. “I have an almost simple-minded affection for them.”
Politically active, Banks staked out positions against US military intervention in Iraq, and the intrusions of the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
Two of Banks’ works were made into widely acclaimed films.
Affliction, adapted for the cinema by Paul Schrader in 1997 and starring Nick Nolte and Sissy Spacek, was about a small-town policeman who investigates a hunting death.
And in “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997), Banks used multiple voices to tell the horrific story of a fatal school bus accident that permanently traumatizes a small town in upstate New York.
In 1998, Banks told the Paris Review that an early inspiration was his teenage discovery of the American poet Walt Whitman.
“It was the first time I had the feeling that you could be a writer, and it would be a high, noble position,” he said, “yet connected to the reality around you.”