Continental Drift Summary
by Russell Banks

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Continental Drift Summary

In Continental Draft, Russell Banks uses the geological term as a metaphor for social alienation. Banks offers the stories of two very different characters whose lives brutally collide after one is literally left adrift at sea. One protagonist is a flinty yet dissolute New Englander—a type of character about whom Banks often writes. When Bob DuBois has trouble navigating the challenges of his native New Hampshire, he heads south with his wife and children, hoping to improve their chances in Florida. The other main character, Vanise Dorsinville, leaves truly dire straits in Haiti on a fragile craft heading for America. Although Bob arrives at his initial destination, things do not go as planned. For Vanise, her baby son, and her nephew, shipwreck and betrayal land them on a small Atlantic island rather than the mainland; her life actually changes for the worse.

Bob begins by realizing his plan to help his brother, Eddie, run his liquor store. Bob’s tendency to stray does not change in the new scene, and he starts another affair. During a robbery attempt at the store, Bob shoots and kills the thief. Although it is ruled justifiable, the incident rattles him and he moves farther south to the Florida Keys. Working on a charter boat with his friend Avery, he soon realizes that Avery is smuggling drugs as well as undocumented immigrants from Haiti. Vanise and her family are aboard when the Coast Guard stops his boat. The mate panics and throws the passengers overboard, and Bob does nothing to prevent him.

The tragedy grotesquely worsens as only Vanise survives. Bob somehow finds her with a relative in Miami and tries to return the money they had paid for safe passage. Not only is his gesture rejected, as Vanise wants no blood money, but he is killed by a gang.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Russell Banks’s Continental Drift recounts the unlikely, intertwined destinies of Bob DuBois, who forsakes his dead-end blue-collar job in New Hampshire to start a new life with his family in Florida, and Vanise Dorsinville, who flees poverty and oppression in Haiti with her infant son and adolescent nephew for the promise of freedom in America.

The novel is divided into eleven alternating sections, preceded by an epic-like “Invocation” and concluding with a summarizing “Envoi,” which contrast the stories of Bob’s and Vanise’s migrations south and north, respectively, their lives finally colliding in a shocking twist of events off the coast of southern Florida. Banks’s third-person narrative voice relates realistically the separate travails these two protagonists undergo in their quest for better lives in Florida, though occasionally the narrator assumes a limited omniscience in plumbing the individual psychology of these characters as they reflect upon their very different cultural backgrounds and beliefs.

The sparse, mock-epic-like invocation informs readers that “This is an American story of the late twentieth century, and you don’t need a muse to tell it.” The story begins with a section recounting the present-day situation of Bob DuBois, who has lived all of his life in Catamount, New Hampshire, and since high school and his glory days as an all-state hockey player has been working as an oil-burner repairman for the Abenaki Oil Company. At thirty, with his wife Elaine, his two daughters, Ruthie and Emma, his run-down duplex in a working-class neighborhood, his battered station-wagon, his $22,000 debt to the local bank, and his occasional sexual fling with his mistress Doris Cleeve, DuBois has become disaffected. Feeling trapped by his environment and angry that none of his dreams are likely to be realized, Bob convinces his wife that they should move to Florida, where his brother Eddie claims to be making “a killing.”

In the book’s next section, Banks radically shifts the narrative locale and focus and begins recounting the story of Vanise Dorsinville and her family, who live in rural poverty in the hill country of northern Haiti. Their village devastated...

(The entire section is 2,303 words.)