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Russell Banks' ambitious new novel, "The Magic Kingdom," uses an early 1900s Florida Shaker community to present profound, if often implausible, arguments about the ardor of adolescent innocence, the transience of purported paradise and the path to the American Dream.

The novel is narrated — literally, we're to believe — by octogenarian Harley Mann, who in 1971 recorded his memories onto reel-to-reel tapes that Banks "edited and shaped." The conceit allows Harley to chime in from his "present," offering pithy updates on his recording setup for the day or the growth of a sinkhole in his driveway.

Harley made a career out of flipping real estate for cash or repossessing it from those unable to repay their loans and naively sees himself as everyman, "the Anglo-American who thinks of himself simply as American, the male human being who thinks of himself merely as human, the White man who believes he has no color."

Born on an Indiana commune in 1890, Harley came to Florida via Georgia. After his father died of typhoid, he and his three siblings and their pregnant mother worked on a plantation for seven months. This "virtual enslavement" ended when Elder John Bennett paid their debts in exchange for them moving to New Bethany, a Shaker community in Narcoossee, near Orlando.

Once there, 12-year-old Harley meets 19-year-old Sadie Pratt, who has tuberculosis. She's based on the actual Sadie Marchant, who lived at the actual Narcoossee Shaker community, called Olive Branch, which existed from 1894 to 1916. The Sadies have the same fate, which attracts national attention, but Banks sensationalizes the cause and consequences.

New Bethany has 15 adults and no children when Harley's family arrives. Harley apprentices with the beekeeper, but focuses on emulating Elder John and enchanting Sadie. Harley and Sadie accompany Elder John to an expo where they hawk pineapples and steal a first kiss, but their relationship must remain secret because Shakers are celibate.

Sadie's tuberculosis gradually worsens, and despite her growing so thin that Harley felt he "could easily break her fragile bones," he is consumed with jealousy, convinced she's two-timing him with Elder John. (He initially believed John had "erotic" designs on his mother, too.) After Sadie dies, the narrative turns implausible as the teen's mood swings steer the wheels of justice.

Harley buys New Bethany's land after it is abandoned in 1912, and nearly 50 years later sells it to a shell company purchasing property for Walt Disney World. He claims to see with "startling clarity" how these events are related, though the novel offers only insinuation. This apparent lucidity doesn't even survive the very next sentence, when Harley says, "It's not yet clear to me exactly how they're connected." It never becomes clear to readers either.

Critiquing Disney's faux utopia, or "playtime plantation," as Harley dubs it, is legitimate, but I'd humbly suggest watching Sean Baker's spectacular film "The Florida Project," if you want to see how the promise of America has been cursed in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

The Magic Kingdom

By: Russell Banks.

Publisher: Knopf, 352 pages, $30.