Monday, 26 September 2011

Continental Drift

I bought Continental Drift on a whim last year when I was starting to get back into reading. A bit over ten years ago, Russell Banks was one of my favourite authors, mainly on the strength of The Sweet Hereafter, which I picked up after loving the film, and Trailerpark, a book of short stories. I tried to read Cloudsplitter, but couldn't get through it. So last year when, in an idle moment, I was looking for something to read, I jumped online and ordered Continental Drift. It took a while for me to get to it (I actually leant it to a friend before I read it, something I've not done before), but it was worth the wait.

The story is written from two ends. The main character is Bob Dubois, who is a heater repair-man in New Hampshire with a wife and two young daughters, who has an existential crisis and picks up everything to move to Miami in pursuit of the American dream. The other end of the story is that of Vanise and Claude, two Haitians, also on a migration, from Haiti north towards Florida in pursuit a different, but more deeply held, American dream.

The story reminded me a little of The Grapes of Wrath - the families picking up everything, driven to migrate across the country (or the sea) in pursuit of prosperity and finding opportunity not as simple as the stories say. The text is at times intermingled, like in TGOW, with more general observations about the time and theme, here that of migration of people around the globe, and its analogy to the inevitability of continental drift.

Bob Dubois as a character is fascinating. He is deeply, deeply flawed, at once childlike in his spontaneity, and weary in his view of the world. He is difficult to love, with his superficially held view of himself as a good husband and father, his short-sightedness in his plans, and his fast temper. At the same time, though, he's difficult not to relate to, with his anxiety about where his childhood dreams have gone, and his restlessness with his life as it is. The Haitians are never as fully developed, which makes more sense as the book goes on - Banks is more concerned in their story with painting the shocking circumstances through which they push north in search of their false promised land of America, and the strange transplanting of culture that they take with them.

Having recently rewatched The Sweet Hereafter, I knew not to expect a happy ending, and the tragic conclusion of that book is true to form. Like The Sweet Hereafter (although perhaps not with quite as much veritas), though, the tragedy doesn't feel forced - Banks establishes the forces acting on the characters, and what befalls them makes sense, not in a shallow karmic way, but as a consequence of the world in which they find themselves. This, too reminded me of Steinbeck's masterpiece - there are no bad guys here, just people doing whatever they can to struggle upwards in the world, or at least keep from sinking below the waterline, and the societal forces that work against them. Like Tom Joad unable to find someone to fight over the loss of his family's farm, Bob Dubois isn't angry at his brother, or at his old friend; he's just angry and confused, all the moreso because there is no easy target for his anger and frustration, and that's what makes this book great. Writing a great villain is hard, but writing a story in which there is no readily identifiable villain, just the conspiracy of circumstances that work against you, is probably more impressive.

Next: The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy, in parallel with Hitchcock by Truffaut.

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