The Magic Kingdom 
by Russell Banks.
Knopf, 331 pp., £9.99, February, 978 0 85730 547 3
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Harley Mann​ wasn’t a writer. He was a talker, and shortly before his death in 1972 at the age of 82, he began talking to a Grundig TK46 tape recorder, so his life story was doled out in reels, not chapters. Russell Banks found these reels, he tells us, in the basement of the public library in St Cloud, Florida. It was 1999, and Hurricane Irene (‘I rain’) had just barrelled through, flooding the town and rubbishing library materials. ‘The Magic Kingdom’ was scrawled in – what else – magic marker on the plastic packaging shielding the tapes from water damage. Banks saved them from the dumpster, but they languished, all but forgotten, in his office for many years until he was moved on impulse to buy an old machine on eBay and hear what they contained.

That’s when the foreword ends and Harley Mann, real estate speculator, takes over the narration with Reel #1. Pretending that a character was ‘real’ is a stock-in-trade of fiction, but has it ever been used to throw doubt on the realness of real estate? ‘The Magic Kingdom’ is of course the Disney theme park opened to the public in 1971, the year Harley started talking to his Grundig. Some of the land on which the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom was built was allegedly part of a Shaker community where Harley spent his adolescence – the ghost of a religious utopia, therefore, haunting the commercial one. There are, Banks claims, three Shaker grave markers (naming Harley Mann and two other protagonists) inside the theme park, accessible to anyone with an entry ticket, if you can elude the security guards tasked with keeping memory-makers out of the wooded areas.

Such was the persuasive power of Banks’s ruse that, had I more time, I might have driven down to Orlando to see the graves for myself (‘located in the Animal Kingdom on a low hammock at the edge of a marsh several hundred yards south-west of the Rainforest Cafe’). St Cloud is a real town, as is Narcoossee – despite what their woozy names suggest. The Shaker community – known as the Olive Branch colony, sent down from upstate New York – was real too. They bought seven thousand acres in the mid-1890s and cultivated it for commercial farming, fishing and logging until the group’s mysterious demise in 1915.

One small clue, though, gives the fictive game away. Banks – whose home territory lay between New England, where he was born in 1940, and the Adirondacks, where he died on 7 January this year – had a long relationship with Florida: it provides the pivotal setting for two other novels of his, Continental Drift (1985) and The Lost Memory of Skin (2011). I phoned the Veterans Memorial Library, St Cloud branch, just to make sure: no, a librarian assured me, there is no basement. (Her tone betrayed incredulity – and suspicion.) Google itself instructs us: if a Florida realtor offers you a property with a basement, run.

The barbarous story of how a mosquito-and-alligator-infested swampland became cultivated for agriculture – and, yes, real estate – provides the bass line for a novel whose melodic line, floating above, circles the loftier issue of community formations, and what binds or dissolves them. Russell’s realtor was born in 1890 and raised in a series of communes, with each illustrating a parable. There’s Graylag, an anti-capitalist Ruskinite commune in Indiana, where Harley enjoyed a paradisical early childhood until his parents migrated, with a band of schismatics, to another Ruskinite colony in Waycross, Georgia, when Harley was twelve. The lesson of the Ruskinites is that rationalism is no bulwark against doctrinal squabbles. Little do the Manns know that their destination colony is sinking into chaos thanks to an epidemic of typhus, from which Harley’s own father quickly expires, stranding his wife, four boys and a baby on the way.

Waycross offers a second lesson. Communes are fragile, nature is brutal, and if illness is a catastrophe for one family, an epidemic is a catastrophe for everyone. With her husband dead, Harley’s mother is lured – she has little choice – by rumours of a prosperous enterprise, Rosewell Plantation in Valdosta, near the Florida border. This version of a commune is little better than a concentration camp, and the Emancipation Proclamation is just a legality when an employer can make a debt slave out of anyone, Black or white, who comes in good faith to work. Living on the plantation means buying an army surplus tent, blankets, utensils, dishes and daily rations, all of which gives you a negative balance to start with. Any contingency that arises – your neighbours steal your blankets, say – puts you further in the red, with monthly interest charged on the total.

The working conditions are nightmarish: ‘The overseers carried whips, which they did not hesitate to use both as goads and as punishment for any minor infraction or slip-up. Workers, women as much as men, even children, were stripped and beaten bloody, often for no other reason than to serve as an example for the rest.’ This, Harley feels, was yet another lesson, the one that scarred him the most: ‘I learned a lot about human nature at Rosewell that I did not want to believe, a lot that contradicted much of what the Ruskinites and later the Shakers tried to make me believe … I learned that people who have had everything stolen from them will steal from anyone who has not.’ Even the relations between family members become corrupted: ‘the five of us more or less fell silent.’ When a clerical job opens up in the plantation owner’s house, son vies with pregnant mother to escape the punishing field labour.

Harley’s mother gets the job and, posting desperate letters on the sly, arranges for a further rescue. This time they are truly bound for a magic kingdom: New Bethany, a Shaker colony in Narcoossee, Florida. The saviour who comes in person to pay off Rosewell and lead them out of indentured servitude is Elder John Bennett: tall, hale, in his thirties – all paternal benevolence and capable masculinity. When Harley and his brother Pence first meet him, they are helping in the hog abattoir. The animals are lowered into barrels of almost boiling water to be scalded for flaying alive; the children are tasked with keeping the water hot. Elder John has come, in the nick of time, to save their souls. But he may be too late.

Over several days, as they travel by coach, rail and finally steamboat to New Bethany, Elder John teaches them the history and tenets of Shakerism, and wins everyone over – except for Harley, who, mindful that his dying father designated him ‘man of the family’, keeps an eye on his mother and their new leader. Although he is told that Shakers take a vow of celibacy, suspicion falls on everyone. ‘Which pleases you more,’ he asks his flustered mother, ‘us becoming Shakers or us getting away from this place?’ If there is a snake in Eden, Harley, unbeknownst to himself, is going to be it.

The Shakers – the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – are the most loveable of the sects that emerged from waves of 19th-century American religious revivals, many of which originated in New York State’s ‘burned-over district’. Mormonism and Seventh-Day Adventism proved the most durable, but countless social experiments – Fourierism, feminism, abolitionism, spiritualism, socialism, polyamorism – had their moment. When the Chautauqua Center made the news as the site of Salman Rushdie’s stabbing by a radicalised Lebanese American, it ironically called to mind a deep counterhistory of religious zeal allied with progressivism.

The Shakers believed in the equality of the sexes. Their leader was Mother Ann Lee, who led eight acolytes in 1774 from Manchester to Watervliet, New York (now Colonie). She was only 48 when she died, and became more than a saint: her followers believed that she was the second coming of Christ, his female counterpart. It was she who made celibacy the rule, and it was this ‘high-mindedness’ that most impressed the outside world – though it also doomed the sect. The Shakers were associated with fine craftsmanship: furniture and ‘gift drawings’ and music – thousands of songs, of which ‘Simple Gifts’ is the most famous. (Aaron Copland incorporated it in his Appalachian Spring.) That’s another piece of their lore – they couldn’t reproduce themselves, and they couldn’t outcompete industrial mass production.

Banks’s New Bethany is a model human community, co-run by Elder John and Eldress Mary Glynn. Everyone is put to work on the land – from each according to his ability, to each according to her need. It’s well tended. It’s orderly. They’ve drained the marshes and planted crops and orchards and flowerbeds, and every member is placed in a position where they might ‘shine’. Harley is allowed to apprentice to the beekeeper (he will come to learn the amazing ways of nature’s quintessential commune – not coincidentally, a female-centred one). The beekeeper, Brother Hiram, suffers from what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder: as a cavalry officer in Cuba during the Spanish war, he witnessed the slaughter of his herd in an artillery attack and never recovered from the shock. In lieu of old-fashioned reproduction, the Shakers expanded their ranks by recruiting lost souls, as well as ‘orphans and children born out of wedlock, infants and youngsters literally left at the Shaker doorstep’. The steamboat captain assures Harley: ‘They looks after widders and orphans real good.’

Did the Shakers exploit these outcasts? Harley muses: ‘Exploitative, yes. The profit to New Bethany from our unpaid collective labour was much greater than the cost of our maintenance and education. That was easy to compute. In fact, I made it a classroom project, but did not show the numbers to Sister Hazel.’ But then, unlike at Rosewell, the Shakers weren’t cruel. ‘Besides, after five hours of confinement in Sister Hazel’s schoolroom, we boys were eager to get outside and be physically active. And for all four of us, the work we were assigned was interesting and instructive and rarely as onerous or dangerous as work in a factory or mill would have been had we been living in the World.’

It’s in Harley’s nature to be sceptical. And competitive. While Elder John takes Harley under his wing, grooming him for eight years to be his second in command, Harley looks for ways both to imitate this father figure and undermine him. There are clues that Elder John may be a little more enterprising than the Shakers strictly permit – at one point he is put on probation by the trustees in New York for real estate speculation, and he welcomes overtures by a huckster called Cyrus Teed from another cult, the Koreshans in Fort Myers, who want to build a business partnership. Profit-making is forbidden, Harley reminds Elder John as they make their way to Tampa to win a pineapple competition. There is yet another contest at stake, one that may exist largely in Harley’s mind: their contest for the love of the young tuberculosis patient drawn to them on frequent visits from the nearby sanatorium, Sadie Pratt.

Melodrama! That, more than sex itself, tests the resiliency of a community. And a novel. For while the love triangle that ensues is the most banal imaginable – Sadie is dying; she allows Harley to make love to her; he is tormented by the thought that Elder John may also be her secret lover – the corrosive effect of obsession and secrecy is what will destroy the magic kingdom: ‘When one has taken up lying, as I had done, it’s natural to assume that everyone else is lying, too. A person who has successfully created a false identity will be quickly led to question the authenticity of everyone else’s identity.’

The solution is clear to Harley: they must run away. Sadie resists. The more she resists, the more he is convinced that she is in love with the older man. But the day comes when she can’t leave her bed, and Elder John sends Harley to Sadie’s room on the last morning she is alive. She tells him that she is pregnant. And then she tells him the baby may not be his. And then she asks him to give her an overdose of morphine so that she can die. He refuses; she recants her claim that he may not be the child’s father, saying she wanted to goad him to help her die. But already the seed, as it were, has been planted. When Sadie perishes that afternoon, and Elder John privately admits to giving her the overdose she requested – he firmly believes he and Eldress Mary have done nothing wrong – hell breaks loose. Harley files a criminal complaint with the sheriff, Elder John and Eldress Mary are arrested, and the rumour spreads that they conspired to kill Sadie because she was pregnant with Elder John’s child.

Harley is shunned, even by his mother and brothers, and is cast out of New Bethany. The accused are eventually exonerated, but not before the case becomes a media circus and cause célèbre for an ambitious state attorney. New Bethany is destroyed, Eldress Mary dies, Elder John leaves the order in shame and the last Shaker remnant boards a train for New York. Harley lies low – like the serpent in Genesis, condemned to go on his belly. Although by and by he becomes a wealthy real estate speculator, snaps up all the acres that used to be New Bethany and sells them to the Disney corporation, he is haunted by his lost paradise for the rest of his life, dying alone in St Cloud when a sinkhole swallows him up. ‘And dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.’

The case of a real Sadie, Sadie Marchant, a tubercular woman euthanised by the Shakers at the Olive Branch Colony in 1911, ignited a nationwide debate on ‘mercy killing’. Banks draws on the story almost to the letter: Elder John is based on Brother Egbert Gillette, who was tried alongside Eldress Elizabeth Sears. Rumours that Marchant was pregnant, and not really at death’s door, were disproved by the medical examiner. (In Banks’s version, the medical examiner gives false testimony about the pregnancy after poor Sadie’s body is exhumed.) In fact, no one in the community wanted to punish the Shakers, who had endeared themselves to their neighbours and up to that point had a sterling reputation. The prosecutorial state attorney was forced to back off. The colony limped along for a few more years. Even without the scandal of the mercy killing, the Shakers were nearing the end of their century-long arc in the New World.

All this​ might have yielded a fine, if subtler, novel debating the morality of euthanasia and Christian idealism in fin-de-siècle America. Why did Banks set up his model human community and introduce a Harley Mann into it? An unbeliever nagged by his own hypocrisy, hyper-alert to hypocrisy in others, jealously fixated on one beautiful, unattainable young woman at the expense of all others: Mann is to the end an enigma to himself, unsure if his alienation is rooted in his early childhood, or his experiences at Rosewell, or the death of his father, or original sin (as his name suggests – the Adamic Mann). He comforts himself with the only truth he is sure of, but it sounds mealy-mouthed anyway: ‘I have assiduously clung to scientific rationalism. Much as I tried, I could not avoid love, however.’ Then again: ‘Separateness and difference – I had come to embrace the feeling and had begun to think of it as my essential nature, my true self.’ He reminded me of Cal Trask, the Cain figure – the ‘wicked’ brother – at the heart of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Banks would have been pleased by the comparison, citing Steinbeck, along with Theodore Dreiser and Richard Wright, Nelson Algren and Sherwood Anderson, as influences. All of them deployed melodrama to drive home the failure of America to live up to its ideals; all of them wrote to expose inequality and economic Darwinism. The Magic Kingdom is Banks’s fourteenth, and final, novel. He came close to the Pulitzer twice, once for Continental Drift, and then for Cloudsplitter (1998), a fictional account of the abolitionist rebel John Brown. Banks was born working-class, the son of an alcoholic plumber who left his wife and four children when Banks was twelve. They mended their relationship later in life, but Banks never got over the sense of precarity that comes with paternal abandonment. (He based his 1989 novel Affliction on his father, and dedicated it to him; it was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte.) His most famous novel may be The Sweet Hereafter (1991), also made into a movie, about a fatal school bus accident in the wake of which an ambulance-chasing lawyer tests the integrity of a rural blue-collar town. Banks admitted that he wrote about the sort of people who voted for Trump; those were the people he came from. He wanted them to understand themselves better.

But that didn’t mean he was an optimist. The real-life story of Sadie Marchant had a happy ending insofar as the Shakers were vindicated. Banks’s story is different; he invents the treacherous narrator, gives him a destiny as a prosperous land speculator, and then dumps him in a sinkhole in the end (the demise of Don Giovanni is even given a mention). What it all amounts to is a monumental indictment of Florida:

He did not mention blinding clouds of mosquitoes. He said nothing of the long, torrential rainy season. He did not say that every few years a frost kills all the crops overnight, and by morning every farmer and rancher from Tampa to Fort Myers has to borrow a year’s income from the bank and start over. He did not tell us about the hurricanes.

Over and over we’re told about the big land grab in the mid-19th century when the federal government started selling off its Florida holdings. Those tracts, often useless or even underwater, were bought by speculators who resold them to impoverished Civil War veterans, or impoverished Irish navvies, or impoverished white sharecroppers, who could not make good on their loans and foreclosed so that another round of sell-offs could be made. And so on.

We were in Florida … and Florida from its beginnings has served as a catch basin for the world’s detritus. It’s where you go when your prospects elsewhere have ended, and you’ve not yet settled into despair, and you still think there’s a slight chance you can start over, and no one will notice your previous failings or hold them against you while you gather your bearings and begin again.

It’s easy to infer who Banks’s real target is: a man who exploited those whose prospects have ended. That man has now left the White House, and it is Florida he has slunk back to. I can’t help feeling singed by the brimstone.

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