Dreaming Up America 

by Russell Banks
(Seven Stories Press)

First off, I thought Russell Banks was Canadian, so I was wondering why the prolific writer's first nonfiction book was all about the United States. My bad—turns out he's one of us. Dreaming Up America is nonetheless an unusual book for Banks. Based on a conversation he had with a French filmmaker, the book is an oral transcript of an 11-hour-long interview about the history of the US.

The documentary, Amérique Notre Histoire, set out to educate the French people about the history of the States, to right the misconceptions that Hollywood films have ingrained into France's ideas of what it means to be an American. You're probably wondering why someone would speak with Banks about this: Why is he an expert on American filmmaking and US history? Fair enough—I was wondering myself. That is Dreaming Up America's double-edged sword. While Banks, author of The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, is an amazing sounding board for working-class American existence, he seems to be a dabbling historian with a passing interest in film (see the 1997 film adaptations of both the aforementioned novels). In other words, Dreaming is cursory stuff.

Banks works his way through the chronology of the United States' history, from the colonists to the full-on travesty of the Iraq War. So Dreaming is a good jumping-off point for history numb-nuts (like myself), but history buffs will be disappointed by its surface-level analysis. Banks' conversational approach to his theories works for a majority of the brief book, but the lack of follow-through can be frustrating. When Banks postulates that the American people are terrified of extreme democracy, there's no supporting evidence, and the limitations of the transcript format become evident.

Dreaming is strongest when Banks deals with the link between American cinema and the country's history. "You can almost see the whole mythologized history of civilization unfolding in a typical Western movie. We went from being hunter-gatherers to farmers to villagers. And then we built cities. It's a fascinating genre if you look at it that way. That is how I think Americans view the move West. We were taming our own wilderness, domesticating it, making it fit for the American nuclear family." But as smart and insightful as Banks can be, Dreaming falls short of its mark, mistaking an interesting conversation for a reason to set it to print.

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