Continental Drift is the first novel I’ve read by Russell Banks, but it won’t be the last. This book contains two stories which initially appear to be far removed from each other, but the two sets of characters and their circumstances eventually collided with devastating results.
The main story followed Bob Dubois, an oil-burner repairman in New Hampshire who wanted more from his life than the eternal grind of working in the cold and snow to pay off his boat, the small home that he, his wife Elaine and their two daughters lived in and the clapped-out family car.
One example of Bob wanting more from life was demonstrated by him also having a girlfriend. Bob professed his love for Elaine but didn’t appear to suffer any guilt over his infidelity.
When Elaine realised Bob was unhappy with life in New Hampshire she impulsively suggested they sell up and move somewhere warmer. Bob jumped at the idea and they decided on Florida, as Bob’s brother Eddie was already there. Elaine wasn’t happy about moving to Florida as she didn’t like Eddie as he was rude and disrespectful to most people, but he was a successful business man and Bob jumped at the chance to work for his brother in one of his liquor stores.
The family found themselves living in a trailer in Florida. Other than the weather being warmer, not much changed for Bob. He soon became bored with his job and to add some excitement to his life, started an affair with a black woman who seemed very exotic to him. Bob was convinced he was in love with Marguerite but was not prepared to leave Elaine for her.
When Bob started working at the liquor store he convinced Bob to carry a gun at all times to protect the business and as all readers know, when a gun is introduced into a story someone needs to get shot. Eventually Bob shot and killed a young black man who was robbing the shop.
I was surprised that Bob didn’t go to court for killing the man, in fact, he was barely even questioned by police over the event. Bob didn’t appear to suffer any regrets over the young man’s death either and later he actively tried to find the young man’s accomplice with the intention of killing him too, in retaliation for the accomplice urging his friend to kill Bob during the robbery. After almost killing a man whom he was later told was not the dead man’s accomplice, Bob told Eddie that he couldn’t work at the store anymore or keep the gun because he worried he might kill an innocent person in future.
In a twist in the story, Elaine had told Bob many years ago that she had slept with his best friend, Avery behind Bob’s back. Bob had forgiven Elaine but had never spoken of the affair to Avery. After leaving his job at the liquor shop Bob bought in to Avery’s fishing charter business and found himself earning less money than ever before. Avery was seemingly living an adventurous and glamorous life but was running drugs and had no financial problems while Bob, who was taking tourists out fishing in an old boat, was forced to move his family to a smaller, dirtier trailer.
In between the chapters that followed Bob’s life, the secondary story followed the lives of a young Haitian woman, her child and her nephew. After a disastrous event threatened their lives in poverty-struck Haiti they tried to get to America illegally by boat but were dropped off at the North Caicos Islands, 600 miles from America, where the young woman was forced into prostitution for them to survive. Eventually, they boarded another boat which was to take them to Florida but in the worst sort of tragedy at sea they and the other Haitians trying to reach America found themselves forced overboard when the US Coastguard spotted their boat.
Each chapter began with a pictorial compass, which reinforced the idea for me that this story is about people’s moral compasses. Bob was greedy for more than he had and wanted the success that Eddie and Avery had, but he glossed over how they gained their successes. Eddie and Avery both suffered as a result of their morals and as Bob’s own moral compass slipped further and further south things went bad for him too. Unfortunately, as he went he dragged others down with him.
Continental Drift is a good book. In the beginning I felt hopeful that Bob would become a better man and that he and his family would enjoy better times if he were to succeed to his aspirations but in the end the story turned out to be more of a warning against greed, particularly for those without good morals and values to guide them. As Bob firmly believed he was a good man, the lesson is there for all of us.