Defenseman by Russell Banks – short story review

It starts off as a meditation about the isolation of his father’s life and how hockey prepared him to deal with it, how its speed, grace and violence gave him the tools to steel himself against the weight and blows of a lack of connection to humanity. It then drifts into a recollection of connecting with his father through the act of getting his first pair of ice skates and going to a small man made pond outside of town that was used as the local skating rink and learning to ice skate. It then wraps up with a trip back to the “present” and the narrator realizing that he doesn’t have any pictures of him and his father skating together, few pictures from their winters at all. For whatever reasons, summer dominated their photo albums, despite the fact that winter dominated their lives. The story concludes with the narrator putting skates on and stepping out onto a frozen pond himself, and breaking away from the weight of life.

The physical isolation of his father seems to have been carried on by the narrator, as he walks into his barn to get his ice skates and then across a meadow or field area to get to a small pond to ice skate in his adulthood. Earlier it is mentioned that he played hockey in a similar way, and from the same position – a relatively slow but violent defenseman. There is clearly a thread being woven that a son follows in his father’s footsteps and, intentionally or not, fathers set this thread in motion by providing key moments of impetus that are likely repetitions of moments they had with their own fathers.

I can’t help but think of my kid and trying to get him to play baseball (it hasn’t been fruitful). I can attest to a strong desire to see him excel at something that was important to me, that it does foster a sort of connection that is indescribable.  And when he doesn’t pick up on it, there is a distance that seems difficult to close.  And I do wonder if he will be lacking something to help him make it through at least the next ten years if he can’t throw a baseball properly, or shoot a basketball.  If there is a connection he will be missing.

Which ties back into the story. Learning a sport is a connection to other people, it is something that binds and ties you together. A commonality. To be without this is to be relegated to an isolation that is deeply personal and difficult to break. By taking his kid out onto the ice, by teaching him to skate, the narrator’s father was giving him a touch stone to rely on in all of his other dealings with other men. He wasn’t just passing down something personal, not just forming his son in his own image, but exposing and indoctrinating him to a foundational experience for pretty much every man of that area and culture, and an experience that could only, really, be handed down paternally.

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