Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: Continental Drift, by Russell Banks

Read Wikipedia's description of the book by clicking here.

If you're looking for a book with a happy ending, Continental Drift is not it.  If you're looking for any sort of human feel good book, this is not it either.  The book chronicles dismal human failings and the never ending deep set urge many feel that there is a better life beyond the horizon, if it can just be reached.  This book chronicles human unhappiness and misery.

The book follows Bob Dubois, a New Hampshire born and raised boiler mechanic who is fucking a woman on the side, while his young wife and two daughters are at home.

His job is just ok.  It doesn't pay that well, but he has a house and a car, neither paid for, and is constantly comparing himself to his brother, a wheeler and dealer, and lamenting that his life has gone the same dreary route as that of his father and his father's father.  Bob is selfish to the core and thinks only of himself.  His selfish nature permeates the book.   He relives the good old days of high school constantly, in his mind, especially a time spent on the ice hockey team with his brother.

One night, in a fit of rage, after drinking and seeing his lover, in a seedy room above a bar, he smashes all the windows in his car and goes off in a rage on his wife.  He tells her how unhappy he is, how he always thought he'd make it, not be stuck answering broken boiler calls, middle of the night and weekends, to make over time.

Elaine, his benign wife, who is happy, who needs nothing more than what she now has to be happy, is shocked by Bob's outburst.  In the end, she blurts out, to appease him, to please him, to sacrifice all to serve his unquenchable needs, "Let's pack and move!".

Off they go, selling the house, the fishing boat first, to Florida, and the endless seedy strip malls and commercialism that is very visible there.

He goes to work for his fast talking wife abusing brother Eddy who "is into the big real estate deals."

But Bob's life doesn't improve.  He makes less money clerking his brother's liquor store and soon is back to his old ways, sleeping with the elderly store janitors daughter, a nurse.  She's also black, which gives Bob a thrill, yet leaves him feeling inadequate.

Not long after his late night flings begin, the store is robbed and he shoots and kills one of the robbers.  This unnerves Bob even further.  The family is living in a trailer park.  Bob suddenly quits his brother's job, but seems fate is on Bob's side.  His old friend, from childhood, another New Hampshire boy transplanted to Florida, Ave Boone, has showed up, with his young hippy girlfriend at Bob's trailer.  At the same time, Elaine, Bob's wife, is giving birth to their son, Bob Jr.  Bob barely notices the birth, so shrouded is he in his own mind and misery.

Ave offers Bob a job, piloting the Belinda Blue, a slow old fishing boat, down in the Keys, taking out fishing tourists, while he buys a faster larger boat, "to go way out, fish the big fish and tournaments" he claims but they both know he's smuggling drugs.

Meanwhile, a second storyline has been pursued, that of a Haitian woman, Vanessa, her cousin, a child, Claude and her young baby Charles.  They are attempting to make it to America.  They were kicked out of Claude's house when he, running with a gang of boys, stole some meat off a wrecked truck.  The Haitians live crowded and in filth, starving already, under the thumb of local corruption.  They are terrified of retribution for Claude's act, and send him, with Vanessa, away, giving Vanessa a stash of money they were saving, to "make it to America".  She is directed to a local man who smuggles humans by boat.

However, this man takes their money and dumps them, along with other Haitians, on an island 300 miles northwest of Haiti.  Vanessa with her baby and Claude flee the beach.  The other Haitians are rounded up and sent back to Haiti.

She ends up at a shack, by following a one eyed dog she believes is a god sent by the spirits.  The Haitians practice voodoo mixed strangely with several other religions.  The man in the shack lets them stay there, if they work, and he exacts his price on Vanessa.  He rapes her nightly.

Eventually they escape on another boat, but this time are dumped in the Bahamas, and only survive when Vanessa is taken in by a shop owner who keeps her as a money making whore, in a bedroom above the shop.  He rapes her also.  Claude escapes and begins working on a marijuana farm.  One night he comes back to town and kills the shop owner holding his aunt with a machete.  Off they go to a Haitian section of the island where they become involved in voodoo rites on a regular basis while waiting for a way to get to America.

Of course the stories intersect.  Bob's brother Eddie is in trouble with the mob over real estate.  His wife and child leave him.  He calls Bob, now living in Key West in an even smaller shoddier trailer, wanting money help.  Bob frantically drives north, thinking once his brother sees his face, all will be well.  Instead, he finds Eddie dead in the garage, a hose taped onto the exhaust pipe and run in through a window.

Haunted by his brother's death, Bob makes a determination to become a good man, successful and approaches Ave about buying more into the Belinda Blue.  Ave gives him the deal, that he too is in debt, that he can't give him a loan to buy a bigger percentage of the Belinda because he doesn't own the Belinda and the bill of sale declaring Bob a quarter owner is all phony.  He suggests Bob could make some extra money smuggling Haitians from the Bahamas.  Bob has already slept with Honduras, Ave's girlfriend, but then Ave slept with Bob's wife Elaine, years' ago.

Bob and his Jamaican crew member Tyrone pick up the Haitians, which include Vanessa, her baby and Claude, the boy.  Bob sees them as enigmas, people wise, that know something about what they want and how to get it that he doesn't.  He befriends them on the trip, gives them water, offers them cigarettes, lets the boy captain the boat, plops his captain hat on his head.  You think at this time Bob is going to become a hero somehow.  That is not the case.

They drift too far north on the trip back and as they plan to take the Haitians ashore, in heavy seas, a coast guard cutter is seen.  Tyrone panics and screams they have to get the Haitians off.  He yells at them to jump off, into the heavy seas.  They are a couple hundred yards off shore.  It's dark.  Bob knows they'll die.  The boy Claude jumps first, to please Bob, who befriended him.  then the others.  The Belinda Blue makes its escape.  The Haitians all drown.  Except for Vanessa.

Back at Key West the state police are waiting for the Belinda Blue.  Bob and Tyrone fear the worst, but the police have it wrong and have busted Ave for drug running and believe the Belinda is also involved.  They don't suspect the Belinda was involved in the human smuggling that left dead Haitians littering a northern Florida beach.

But Bob confesses to his wife.  She accepts his action and in frantic upheaval activity they both realize they should have stayed in New Hampshire and begin throwing things in bags to return.  Bob has one more he must do:  return the money the Haitians gave him to take them to America to the Haitians.  However, that doesn't go so well.  In his stupidity, he tells people in little Haiti he is the captain of the boat that dumped the Haitians.  His arrogance, that if just gives back the money to the lone survivor, his actions are appeased, is so blind, it allows him to follow four Haitians, in the dark, over some railroad tracks.  They then turn on Bob, the New Hampshire boy,  who played a mean game of high school ice hockey, turned mass murderer.  They kill him with knives.  Bob's pathetic life mercifully ends there.

This book is depressing.  It's a vile chronicle of human behavior.  It's a reminder to be happy where you are, that your life depends more on your attitude than your circumstance.  This book is also a reminder of the pain inflicted by the male sex drive, not only upon women, like the Haitian Vanessa, but also upon themselves.  While Vanessa was ruthlessly raped throughout the story, first in Haiti, then by the boatmen, taking herself, her baby and Charles to the Bahamas, then by the shop keeper in the Bahamas and his "customers", the only reason Vanessa survived, was by her vagina, which was the only thing anyone wanted of her or saw of value in her.

This book is a sobering slap in the face to anyone who thinks highly of humanity.

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