Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 736

Continental Drift is structured as a braided novel, where two stories alternate until their final collision. Over his career, Russell Banks has written a series of novels that attempt to describe America through careful, close looks at a variety of its challenges. He explores race relations (in Cloudsplitter , 1998),...

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Continental Drift is structured as a braided novel, where two stories alternate until their final collision. Over his career, Russell Banks has written a series of novels that attempt to describe America through careful, close looks at a variety of its challenges. He explores race relations (in Cloudsplitter, 1998), class relations (in The Sweet Hereafter, 1991, and the short-story collection Trailerpark, 1981), violence (in Affliction, 1989), and homelessness (in Rule of the Bone, 1995). In Continental Drift, questions of personal responsibility and the fantasy of the American Dream contribute to the power of the book.

The geological concept of continental drift is used in the book as an explanation for large-scale human behavior. The novel uses an overt first-person narrator to compare events such as the human migrations in Ethiopia and Somalia to the constant motion in the physical world—the shifting tectonic plates of continental drift, the endlessly moving currents of the ocean, and the swirl and change of the weather. If these events are natural and inevitable, then their real-world consequences—such as death and economic exploitation—cannot be helped, either.

Continental Drift also examines life on a micro level, describing what happens to the characters in their personal lives. Throughout the book, Vanise is exploited. When she is in her home village, the men of the family have left for the United States, so she has no protection from the chief of police, who abuses her sexually, becoming the father of Charles. The police chief does not help Varise or their son materially, but he does keep an eye on his son until they leave. Vanise is abused physically; she is not merely raped but beaten as well. She is lied to, told she will be taken to the United States but abandoned instead hundreds of miles from her destination. Bob and Tyrone agree to take Vanise and the other Haitians to Miami, but they abandon the Haitians to their death at the first sign of trouble.

Bob Dubois’s exploitation is more difficult to describe. If it were up to him, he might well have allowed the the Coast Guard to board his ship, saving the Haitians. Bob, however, defers to Tyrone, who sees their cargo as merchandise. Bob simply stands by, as Tyrone, rifle in hand, chases them into huge waves.

In smaller ways, Bob uses his wife and family. For a while, he is a good husband and father, but then the boredom of his job drags him down. He ignores his children, fights with his wife, and lies while cheating on her. Bob and the other characters who exploit him see the truth as flexible. To them, acting badly at the expense of another person is not bad, so long as the other person does not know that he or she is being mistreated. Thus, when Bob’s wife discovers he is cheating and is hurt by the discovery, his action is rendered bad. If she were never to find out, however, the same action would be acceptable.

Through this attitude toward the truth, Bob is exploited by his brother Eddie and his friend Avery. Bob comes to Florida on the assumption that Eddie will one day make him a business partner. Eddie, though, is just trying to stay one step ahead of his building financial problems. He looks rich, but his life is a house of cards, on the verge of collapse. He uses Bob as a one more way to make money. Avery treats Bob similarly. He leads Bob to believe that one day Bob will own a boat and make a living through it. (Ironically, Bob is far closer to attaining that dream in his abandoned life in New England, where he was just a few payments away from owning a boat). Bob dreams of the life Avery has—owning a bigger, faster boat, a fancy condo, and a van and enjoying the company of a beautiful and exotic girlfriend—but there appears no legal route to gaining these material things.

Continental Drift ends with its narrator talking to the reader about the purpose of the book. The ending is reminiscent of the ending of Charles Dickens’s novel, Hard Times (1854; originally published as Hard Times for These Times), which also addresses its readers. Each ending calls to readers to recognize how personal greed has created such a terrible world. Each charges its readers to make the world a better place.

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