Continental Drift

by Russell Banks
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

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.

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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.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159

Bob Dubois has just gotten paid and heads for a beer in his home town of Catamount, New Hampshire, on a snowy Friday evening just before Christmas. After he drinks his beer, he intends to buy his young daughter a set of figure skates. Though self-reflection is not part of Bob’s nature, he feels a building frustration with his life. He cheats on his wife and feels remorseful, especially when his infidelity leads him to be too late to buy the skates for his daughter. Bob’s unhappiness with his life boils over, and he smashes out all the windows in his car. Finally home, he collapses with his wife Elaine. They decide to try to improve their lives by moving to Florida, where Bob’s brother Eddie lives.

Vanise Dorsinville lives in a small village in Haiti. As a hurricane rages, her family worries about Vanise’s young nephew Claude, who is not at home. When the skies calm, he returns, carrying a ham. When he acknowledges looting it from an overturned truck, they become frightened that Claude will be arrested. The family decides that Vanise should take the boy to Miami, where his father lives.

Eddie arranges a job for Bob running a liquor store. Eddie insists that Bob begin carrying a gun to work, which he can then leave behind the counter. At first Bob is happy with the changes in his life, and he takes a more active interest in his children. Bob is excited to learn that Elaine is carrying their third child.

Everything changes when Bob meets Marguerite Dill, an attractive African American woman who is the daughter of George, the part-time helper at the store. Bob flirts with Marguerite, and they eventually begin a sexual relationship. Late one night, after spending time with Marguerite, Bob interrupts two African American men robbing the store. Holding a shotgun to Bob, one man demands that Bob hand over the night deposit. In a moment of distraction, Bob gets the pistol from behind the counter and shoots dead the man with the shotgun. While Bob calls the police, the other robber runs away.

Vanise and Claude have given their money to a man named Victor, a boat owner. Though he has told a group of Haitians he will take them to Florida, his plan is to drop them off on North Caicos Island, 600 miles from the United States. Vanise prays according to her beliefs: first to the Christian Trinity and then to traditional Haitian powers. They follow a dog to a man named McKissick, who allows them to stay with him, for a price.

Bob Dubois once again feels lost in his life. Two weeks before his wife’s due date, Bob is with his girlfriend when Elaine goes into labor. With the birth of his son, Bob once again vows to be a better husband. The next day, he plans to break things off with Marguerite, but she does not come to the store. He sees her sitting in a car with another man, and Bob is certain that the man was one of the robbers. Bob grabs his pistol and follows them, confronts the man on the street, then chases him into a bar.

Bob goes to his brother’s house and gives him the gun. Bob is terrified at what he might do. Eddie describes how much money he needs each week and how much trouble he will be in if he does not pay his debts. Bob demands that Eddie take the gun; when Eddie refuses, Bob quits his job and leaves the weapon on the table. With no idea what to do next, Bob drives home to find a van belonging to Avery Boone, his former best friend. Avery proposes that Bob move down to Key West, where Bob can run a fishing boat.

Vanise, her baby, and Claude once more board a ship. They have no way to pay for their passage, so they are kept belowdecks. The crew members rape Vanise, as does a group of paying Haitians who later board the boat. Vanise and her charges are left at Nassau, Bahamas, and once again a man recognizes that they are refugees. He lets Vanise live upstairs from the store, prostituting her as well. One day, Claude visits Vanise carrying a machete. The man who prostitutes her comes upstairs. Claude slashes the man’s throat and steals a roll of money from his pocket, and the three take off again.

In Key West, Bob is soon taking vacationers on fishing trips. His friend Avery buys a bigger, faster boat and begins to disappear on mysterious, multiday trips. One night, Eddie calls Bob, asking to borrow money. Eddie says he knows Bob is smuggling drugs along with Avery. The bottom has fallen out for Eddie, his wife has left him, and unless he comes up with a hundred thousand dollars, he will lose everything he has.

Bob drives to see Eddie, only to discover that Eddie has committed suicide. The shock pushes Bob to try to get ahead in life. Bob asks Avery what he might do to further himself, and Avery tells him that he can ferry Haitians in from the Bahamas. Bob goes to the Bahamas and boards a group of Haitians that includes Vanise. He transports the group back toward Florida, approaching shore near dawn when the waves are high. A Coast Guard ship appears, and Tyrone, Bob’s first mate, forces the Haitians overboard. Bob and Tyrone flee while the Coast Guard attempts to help the refugees in the water.

The next chapter shifts to Vanise, the only survivor. She is with her brother in Miami. She says her survival was due to the aid of an evil loa, or Voodoo spirit, who goes by the names Ghede and Baron Cimetier. She has lost her soul, and the loa has taken over.

Bob is haunted by the incident with the Haitian refugees. His fear and guilt grow even greater when he reads newspaper accounts of the bodies of Haitians washing up on the beach. He finally confesses to his wife, and they agree to leave that night for New Hampshire. Bob has one last task—Tyrone has given him a huge roll of money, taken from the Haitians.

Bob goes to Little Haiti, in Miami. He is led to a dark alley where he once again meets Vanise, who now has power over his soul. He begs her to take the money, but she turns her back on him, and he is attacked by a group of men with knives.

The book ends with a short chapter labeled “Envoi.” In it, the narrator describes the fates of Bob’s wife and children. The narrator explains why he wrote this book, in hopes that readers may come to understand the lives of people like Bob and Vanise and the effect greed has had on their lives.

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