Saturday, July 25, 2015

Continental Drift by Russell Banks

Banks is an amazing writer.

Dubois thinks, A man reaches thirty, and he works at a trade for eight years for the same company, even goes to oil burner school nights for a year, and he stays honest, he doesn’t sneak copper tubing or tools into his car at night, he doesn’t put in for time he didn’t work, he doesn’t drink on the job--a man does his work, does it for eight long years, and for that he gets to take home to his wife and two kids a weekly paycheck for one hundred thirty-seven dollars and forty-four cents. Dirt money. Chump change. Money gone before it’s got. No money at all. Bob does not think it, but he knows that soon the man stops smiling so easily, and when he does smile, it’s close to a sneer. And what he once was grateful for, a job, a wife, kids, a house, he comes to regard as a burden, a weight that pulls his chin slowly to his chest, and because he was grateful once, he feels foolish now, cheated somehow by himself.

This is on page 4. We’ve just met the novel’s protagonist, Bob Dubois, and Banks tells us in this one paragraph everything we need to know about him and, if we are perceptive, even his fate. And more than that. This paragraph, like so many others in the text, speaks not only the truth of Bob Dubois, but transcendent truths of the human condition.

Here’s another. Three paragraphs later.

These northern New England milltown bars are like Irish pubs. In a community closed in by weather and geography, where the men work at jobs and the women work at home and raise children and there’s never enough money, the men and the women tend to feel angry towards one another much of the time, especially in the evenings when the work is done and the children are sleeping and nothing seems improved over yesterday. It’s an unhappy solution to the problem, that men and women should take pleasure in the absence of their mates, but here it’s a necessary one, for otherwise they would beat and maim and kill one another even more than they do.

This one is less about Bob specifically, but still of course about him, about him and every one like him. You don’t even have to look closely to see yourself. It’s me, it’s you, it’s everyone who’s even felt cheated by their own dreams of what they could be. It’s Bob Dubois.

But Bob isn’t the only character Banks wants us to know. After introducing Bob, he switches to a second major character, Vanise Dorsinwille, a young, illiterate Haitian mother who will seek refuge from poverty by fleeing to America, whose tale will at first alternate and then eventually intersect with Bob’s.

And when he wants us to meet Vanise, he begins with this.

It’s as if the creatures residing on this planet in these years, the human creatures, millions of them traveling singly and in families, in clans and tribes, traveling sometimes as entire nations, were a subsystem inside the larger system of currents and tides, of winds and weather, of drifting continents and shifting, uplifting, grinding, cracking land masses. It’s as if the poor forked creatures who walk, sail and ride on donkeys and camels, in trucks, buses and trains from one spot on this earth to another were all responding to unseen, natural forces, as if it were gravity and not war, famine or flood that made them move in trickles from hillside villages to gather along the broad, muddy riverbanks lower down and wait for passage on rafts down the river to the sea and over the sea on leaky boats to where they collect in eddies, regather their lost families and few possessions, set down homes, raise children and become fruitful once again. We map and measure jet streams, weather patterns, prevailing winds, tides and deep ocean currents; we track precisely scarps, fractures, trenches and ridges where the plates atop the earth’s mass drive against one another; we name and chart the Southeast and Northeast Trades and the Atlantic Westerlies, the tropical monsoons and the doldrums, the mistrals, the Santa Ana and the Canada High; we know the Humboldt, California and Kuroshio currents--so that, having traced and enumerated them, we can look on our planet and can see that all the way to its very core the sphere inhales and exhales, rises and falls, swirls and whirls in a lovely, disciplined dance in time. It ages and dies and is born again, constantly, through motion, creating and recreating its very self, like a uroborous, the snake that devours its tail.

It’s a tip-off. Banks wants us to understand from the very beginning that the movements his characters make through the novel, and, of course, by inclusion the movements we all make--movements not just in space but also in time and social position--are as natural, timeless and cataclysmic as the shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates.

That’s why the novel is called Continental Drift. And fundamentally, the difference between its two main characters is that one understands this and the other doesn’t.

Guess which one is clueless.

… like most people, Bob finds it difficult to know right from wrong. He relies on taboos and circumstances to control his behavior, to make him a “good man,” so that on those infrequent occasions when neither taboo nor circumstance prohibits him from satisfying an appetite and he does not satisfy that appetite or even attempt to do so, he does not know what to think of himself. He doesn’t know if he had been a good man or merely a stupid or scared man. Most people, like Bob, unchurched since childhood, now and then reach that point of not knowing whether they’ve been good, stupid or scared, and the anxiety it provokes obliges them to cease wondering as soon as possible and bury the question, as a dog buries a bone, marking it and promising to themselves that they will return to the bone later, when they have the time and energy to gnaw, a promise never kept, of course, or rarely meant to be kept.

Another one of those paragraphs, letting us know that Bob, and people like him, people like us, people whose very lives are formed by these tectonic movements, these people are completely oblivious to their powers and their impact on their lives. We’re like primitives, but primitives disconnected from the forces of nature, clutching the totems and talismans of an orderly, modern life, thinking they are what keep us safe, when they are nothing but shadows, instilled with impotent power by our own misconstrued beliefs.

Paragraphs stressing this point come again and again in the narrative.

Bob knew his own father had loved him and that he had been a kind, gentle, good-humored man, and with his son, Bob would have no choice but to try to be the same man his father had been with him. Any other kind of man, any other kind of father, was unimaginable to him.

They are all the “Continental Drifts” of being human--the great, underlying truths of life that move us from place to place, that both determine our path and provide us the illusion that we are doing the determining.

And, of course, Bob, like us, wants something more. The totems and talismans are unsatisfying in their secret impotence. He’s not always entirely clear what it is that he wants, the strength of the desire itself often overwhelming his ability to discern its target. But in his most quiet and lucid moments, the unrealized ideal comes shining through.

Since childhood, fishing has satisfied his need to be alone and in the natural world at the same time, his deep, extremely conscious need for the presence of his own thoughts coming to him in his own voice, which rarely happens in the presence of other people, his need for order and, perhaps his most tangled need, his need for competence. Hunting for deer, the only hunting he knows about, denies all those; to him, it’s social, chaotic and impossible to feel competent at.

Competence. The sense that one is good at something. A skill. A mastery. The ability to control oneself and one’s actions to a desired effect. It’s the secret need that shines through the illusions of his life and, deluded into thinking that such an object is attainable against the primordial forces of nature, Bob, like Vanise, goes on a quest. But, as the balance of the novel will demonstrate, and essentially why, I think, Banks has chosen to set the stories of these two characters in opposition to one another, Bob’s quest becomes one that fights against the forces of his world, while Vanise’s is one that allows her to ride them like waves.

But that doesn’t mean Vanise wins and Bob loses. Nor even the reverse. Darkly, and perhaps with some smug satisfaction, the author letting the awful truth seep through his compelling narrative, in the end, both Vanise and Bob fail in the quests they’ve begun, both victims to the forces that rumble and roll on a scale that transcends the desires of individual humans.

But, fear not. For even Bob learns a few things along the way.

For years, Bob was one of those people who believe that there are two kinds of people, children and adults, and that they are like two different species. Then, when he himself became an adult and learned that the child in him had not only refused to die or disappear, but in fact seemed to be refusing to let the adult have his way, and when he saw that was true not only of him but of everyone else he knew as well--his wife, his brother, his friends, even his own mother and father--Bob reluctantly, sadly, with increasing loneliness, came to believe that there are no such things as adults after all, only children who try and usually fail to imitate adults. People are more or less adult-like, that’s all.

Useful things.

People who have no power, or believe they have none, also believe that everything that happens is caused by a particular, powerful agent; people who have power, people who can rest easily saying this or that event happened “somehow,” call the others superstitious, irrational and ignorant, even stupid.

Things that we would be wise to observe and learn for ourselves.

Men do that to women, use them to remake themselves, just as women do it to men. Men and women seek the love of the Other so that the old, cracked and shabby self can be left behind, like a sloughed-off snakeskin, and a new self brought forward, clean, shining, glistening wetly with promise and talents the old self never owned. When you seek to acquire the love of someone who resembles you, in gender, temperament, culture or physical type, you do so for love of those aspects of yourself, gender, temperament, culture, etc.; but when you seek the love of someone different from you, you do it to be rid of yourself.

But it isn’t all stoicism and wisdom. It’s a pitched battle, a terrible row with the forces that shape our lives and our society. And when things becoming challenging, as they do almost immediately, when the elements that made his old life so safe and boring clash with the elements of the new life he’s trying to build, Bob reacts not with intelligence, but with the blind and unthinking fury of the very forces he’s locked in combat with.

He raises and slowly extends his fist toward her. He howls. He howls like a trapped beast, and with both hands he clears the counter of bowls, dishes, kitchen implements, clock.

Elaine’s face has gone all to white, her eyes are wide with fear, and she can’t speak. From the rear of the trailer, the cries of her son start up and rise, and suddenly Elaine finds words and says, “Bob, the baby! The baby!”

But it doesn’t matter what she says, for he can no longer hear her or the baby. He lurches around the tiny, cluttered room like a blindfolded deaf man, sweeping tables and shelves clear, knocking over chairs, sending the television set crashing to the floor, the clock-radio and the pole lamp beside the sofa, the floor lamp next to the easy chair, kicking at magazines, jars, ashtrays as they fall.

“Stop! Stop this!” Elaine shrieks at him. “You son of a bitch! You’re wrecking my house!”

For a split second, Bob looks over at his wife, and then, as if what he’s seen has compounded his rage, he turns on the chairs and tables, and grunting, tips onto its stiff, flat back the tattered green sofa. Elaine grabs his sleeve with both hands, and when he swings away from her grasp, her face stiffens, for suddenly she is afraid of him, of his size and force, as if he were of an utterly different species than she and her children, a huge, coarse-bodied beast with a thick hide, like a buffalo or rhinoceros, and berserk, rampaging, maddened, as if by the stings of a thousand bees.

I still marvel at how the whirlwind of Banks’s prose here so perfectly matches Bob’s impotent rage.

The circumstances of Bob’s journey into this darkness are important. They drive the plot of the novel forward. But their real importance comes not in their specificity, but in their universality. And in the end, even Bob comes to understand to futility of it all.

He’s run his life backwards, from what should have been the end to what should have been the beginning. He’s reached the end too soon, at thirty-one, and has nowhere else to go. You could say he shouldn’t have listened to Eddie, he shouldn’t have listened to Avery Boone, he shouldn’t have trusted these men, his brother and his best friend, men whose lives, though slightly more complicated than Bob’s, were no more in control than his, and you’d be right. You wouldn’t get any argument from Bob Dubois, not now, not tonight aboard the Angel Blue in Moray Key. He knows, however, that even if he hadn’t followed his older brother to Oleander Park and hadn’t followed Ave on down to the Keys, if instead he’d struck out for Arizona or California, where he knew no one, a stranger in a new world, he’d still end up one night just as he is now, his life a useless, valueless jumble of broken plans, frustrated ambitions, empty dreams. He’d end up with nothing to trade on.

Why is this? Why was Bob’s quest to improve himself and improve his lot in life doomed to such failure?

It’s not bad luck, Bob knows, life’s not that irrational an arrangement of forces; and though he’s no genius, it’s not plain stupidity, either, for too many stupid people get on in the world. It’s dreams. And especially the dream of a new life, the dream of starting over. The more a man trades off his known life, the one in front of him that came to him by birth and the accidents and happenstance of youth, the more of that he trades for dreams of a new life, the less power he has. Bob Dubois believes this now. But he’s fallen to a dark, cold place where the walls are sheer and slick, and all the exits have been sealed. He’s alone. He’s going to have to live here, if he’s going to live at all. This is how a good man loses his goodness.

It’s because he left the forces that shaped his life, the channels of Continental Drift that determined who he is and what success means for a person in his station. If the novel tells us anything--if the everyman story that is Bob’s means anything at all--it is that we are all better off staying with the forces that have already shaped our lives and seeking contentment within them.

And in some ways it’s amazing that it takes Bob as long as it does to learn this lesson, because he recognizes it immediately when he observes the same compulsion in Vanise.

They risk everything to get away from their island, give up everything, their homes, their families, forsake all they know, and then strike out across open sea for a place they’ve only heard about.

For, as I said, the two main characters of the book do come together in the end. Vanise, in her quest for a better life in America, and Bob, in his quest for a better life being his own boss, find themselves on the same midnight boat ride, Vanise as an illegal passenger among many, seeking refuge, and Bob as the boat’s captain, seeking the kind of score that has eluded him taking rich businessmen out on deep sea excursions.

Why do they do that? he wonders. Why do they throw away everything they know and trust, no matter how bad it is, for something they know nothing about and can never trust? He’s in awe of the will it takes, the stubborn, conscious determination to get to America that each of them, from the eldest to the youngest, must own.

The irony is thick, but all but lost on Bob, who fails to see himself and the desires that drove him to Oleander Park and on down to the Keys in the refugees huddled together on his boat.

But he can’t put that willfulness together with what he sees before him--a quiescent, silent, shy people who seem fatalistic almost, who seem ready and even willing to accept whatever is given them.

It’s this final attribute that befuddles Bob. The Haitian refugees have a secret that Bob ultimately lacks. Rather than opposing the forces of Continental Drift, they ride them like waves, to whatever destination those forces prefer.

It’s a neat package, the way Bob and Vanise come together and juxtapose, and it’s well told. But the final testament to Banks’s skill as a writer comes at the end.

The boat trip ends in tragedy, Bob’s untrustworthy shipmate throws the Haitians and their belongings into the sea when a Coast Guard cutter attempts and fails to apprehend them. Bob later reads in the newspaper that all but one of the Haitians drowned as a result (can you guess which one survived?), and he becomes obsessed in his guilt and his grief to find this lone survivor and make some kind of recompense to her. The money, he fatalistically decides, the money he earned from making the illegal run. It should be hers and not his.

He goes to a bad part of town, a place where Haitian and other refugees are known to live, away from the watchful eyes of the law. He makes inquiries among the pimps and drug dealers that call that place their own. Eventually he finds a group of young Haitian men who claim to know the survivor Bob seeks.

Suddenly Bob’s chest fills as if with a large, hard, metal-skinned balloon, and his breath comes in short, rapid bursts. “ you know where she is?”

“In bad shape, I hear. Very bad shape.”

“Can you take me to her? I’ll...I’ll pay you.”

The man turns to his comrades and murmurs in Creole for a moment, then returns to Bob. “One hundred dollars.” He’s no longer smiling.”

“Fine, that’s fine.”

“You got to pay now, mister.”

“Oh. Oh, sure, okay.” Bob reaches into his pocket, turns away from the group and draws the money out. Carefully, he peels off five twenties, replaces the packet of bills and hands the hundred dollars to the man. “You sure you know where this woman is?”

“No problem, mister. Like I say, this place is a neighborhood, a country village. Her brother is a well-known man here, and my friend is friend to him, too. We hear all about this woman this morning. Everybody who wants to know about her knows about her. If you don’t want to know, you don’t. If you do, you do. Simple, eh? We know where she is right this minute, too. Not far from this spot.” He’s grinning again.

Bob says, “All right, then. Take me to her.”

“You got somet’ing for her, give it to me, eh? I take it to her for you, save you trouble.”

“No. I’ll give it to her. I need to talk to her.”

“She probably don’t speak English.”

“That’s okay. Just take me to her.”

“Suit yourself,” he says.

They start walking, a shapeless group of five men, four black and one white. Shadows in moonlight of palm trees, parked cars, fences, lampposts, fly up like dark flames and lie down behind the men as they stride down Fifty-fourth Street. All the storefronts and shops are blocked and barred by iron gates and shutters; the restaurants and bars are closed, dark, empty. There is no traffic on the streets, Bob suddenly realizes, no cars or buses moving.

And it’s right here, at the bottom of page 360, six pages before the end of the novel, that I realize I have no idea how Banks will end this thing. Will Bob find Vanise and give her the money? If he does, will the act give him the peace that he hopes it will? Or will Vanise reject him, and leave him in torment? Or are the young Haitian men leading him astray? Do they intend to beat and rob him and leave him for dead? Will they, in fact, kill him, and how will Bob receive that final verdict? As just, or as the last in a long line of personal tragedies?

I have no idea.

And the fact that Banks can plausibly take his story in any one or none of these directions, that he has earned my complete trust without telegraphing the statement the closing actions of his novel will make, demonstrates just how great an author he is.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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