“Eldorado banal de tous les vieux gargons.”
The last sentence in Russell Banks’s magnificent novel is surprising in its inevitability: “Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.” Here is a sentence to conclude a politically radical novel, a story of socially revolutionary purpose. But there is no hint in Continental Drift about the personal politics of its author; the imperatives of this book are not political but ethical.
This final sentence actually points up the highly traditional nature of Banks’s novel. It is such a novel as a contemporary Joseph Conrad might write, or a Dreiser or a Dickens. It is a brilliantly detailed, minute but solid, observation of two individual destinies which inform and reflect the contrasting milieus in which they are lived. Banks’s moral purposes are as evident and as heartfelt as Tolstoy’s, his artistry not much less stunning.
Continental Drift is a story of independent but parallel odysseys which finally intersect with terrifying result. One protagonist is Robert Dubois, a 31-year-old oil-burner repairman who lives in New England. He is dissatisfied with his lot in much the same way that Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths was dissatisfied. He gives up his dull career and moves to Florida to take a job as a clerk in his brother’s liquor store. But for Dubois Florida is not merely a place on the map; Florida represents freedom, opportunity, fresh beginnings, the fabled golden land of light.
Florida is for Dubois the same ineffable El Dorado that “America” is for Vanise Dorsinville. Vanise is a young Haitian mother determined to flee the cruelties and poverty of her island and to transport her baby and young male cousin to the gleaming shores of Miami. The vicissitudes she endures in trying to do so are nightmarish but believable.
That is a major point about Continental Drift; it is convincing. No one who has read Banks’s brilliant Trailerpark will be surprised at his grasp of significant detail, his wide knowledge of the situations of ordinary life. His expertise about mortgages, liens, automobiles, jobs, wages, and so forth will equal that of any of the great masters of naturalism about their chosen subjects. But allegiance to literary naturalism is now insufficient to render a believable account of modern society.
The phantasmagoric contemporary world is too vivid, too towering, to be faithfully represented by accumulation of detail or by patiently plotted tragedy. Both these achievements are finely present in Continental Drift; they are, in fact, the backbone of the novel. But at bottom Banks’s understanding of our situation is that of the surrealist, the allegorical fantasist. This is the kind of understanding a novelist needs in order to take for granted the impossible injustices, the impossible terrors, that characterize our present time on earth.
Banks’s understanding is unsparing and generously given. As a novelist, he is truly wise and in Continental Drift has chosen an omniscient point of view which firmly accommodates his insights. Here, for example, is an introductory glimpse of Jimmy Grabow, a very minor character:
He smiled often, talked rapidly and volubly and enjoyed touching people while he rattled away at them, enjoyed putting his hands on whomever he talked to, his arms around shoulders, his hands on cheeks, arms, chests, so that most people, when they left the shop, reached for their wallets, and finding them, wondered what Grabow had taken from them, for always, after talking with Grabow, one felt somehow he’d managed to take away something that wasn’t rightfully his.
The kind of interpretation this passage exhibits is common in the novel, and it is observable even from this one sentence that Banks’s commentary is not ironic in purpose; it intends straightforwardly to inform and illuminate. In fact, apart from that inherent in the plot, there is little irony in the book. Banks faces all his material—which is ripe for ironic treatment—head on. He even judges his characters: Vanise Dorsinville, whose story is grindingly sordid in some respects, is a heroic figure; Robert Dubois is a decent man who haplessly commits multiple murders.
In Aeschylus’ phrase, Helen of Troy was “destroyer of men, destroyer of cities.” In Continental Drift, it is the idea of Golden America which takes on this destructive power, leading the strong and hopeless, as well as the weak and wistful, to inexorable calamity. Yet the novel is not utterly anti-idealistic. Vanise Dorsinville is not entirely mistaken in her dream of freedom in the United States. Dubois is mistaken, partly about the nature of his native land, mostly about the nature of freedom itself. Freedom, Banks gives us to know, is not merely the opportunity to escape boredom and to ascend the ladder of upward mobility. It is a way of feeling and thinking so enormous, so pervasive, that we who live inside its easy atmosphere can rarely make out its character.
Simple enough to see that Dubois is deceived by a false idol, and one piece of irony that Banks does engage in is to contrast Dubois’ deceived unreligious faith against the Haitian woman’s steadfast ardent belief in voudon (what you and I call “voodoo”). So far as I know, only Jorge Amado has ever before treated this important religion seriously in literature, and Banks in doing so is surely attacking his audience’s uninformed prejudices. Yet it is not enough to treat it seriously; it must also be comprehensible and convincing. Banks’s knowledge in this matter seems as careful and detailed as his knowledge of the mores of Florida. The voudon scenes are crucial, and he has brought them off.
Continental Drift is a grand book, one of the very best novels of recent times. Banks has appealed to the sophisticated reader in such a way as to disarm his sophistication, and if there are any unsophisticated readers still at large upon the planet, they must be breathlessly absorbed by the book. For it is an absorbing novel; the anticipated intersection of destinies doesn’t even begin to take place until page 283 of 366, but one never feels impatient or put upon. The suspense is unforced, but it is unremitting.
And that is one of the best satisfactions of Continental Drift, our unobtrusive awareness that the author always knows exactly what he is doing. There are few of even our best contemporary writers to whom we give this confidence.
[Continental Drift, by Russell Banks; Harper & Row; New York]
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