Continental Drift – A Literary Home Run

Continental Drift by Russell Banks doesn’t show up at yard sales too much. It’s a book people hold onto. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but it’s definitely worth buying at a bookstore. In fiction classes I learned that the goal of fiction was to make the reader hear, taste, smell, but above all, see. Russell Banks makes the reader feel.

It’s like Hemingway, in that it is fiction that brings you face to face with truth. But in Banks’ books the narrator is a little more removed and a little more omniscient, and there’s a little more lyricism — but not too much!

Two of his other books, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction were made into movies that won numerous Oscars. Yet for complicated reasons Continental Drift was never made into a movie. I kept waiting for it to be made while Ted Williams was alive, because he figures briefly in the plot.

Then Ted Williams died and his son had his body frozen so he could use it for cloning, and the whole thing became completely surreal. He wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over his favorite fishing ground in Florida, but his head and body are now stored in separate containers in a cryonics lab in Arizona. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

But the part about Ted Williams was the best part of Continental Drift for me. It was really funny, juxtaposed as it was with the other disastrous events in the life of hapless Bob Dubois.

In the opening scene, in a New Hampshire town called Catamount, that I figure is Claremont, but you’d have to ask Russell, Bob Dubois is pricing skates for his two daughters and it makes him so mad he goes and busts out the windows in his truck.

He winds up moving to Florida at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, and people say to him, “You’re going to Florida. Maybe you’ll see Ted Williams.” Anywhere in the Greater Boston area, at that time, you would hear the same thing. Back in the 50s Baseball’s Splendid Splinter retired to Florida to fish and play golf.

And then much later, Bob is getting frustrated and he trashes his trailer in Florida and takes off in the truck and goes to some store and… There’s Ted Williams!

Bob looks at him and says, “You’re Ted Williams!” And Ted Williams already knows this and doesn’t say anything. Perfect.

Continental Drift also includes the story of two refugees from Haiti whose lives intersect with old Bob Dubois. Does Banks get it right? Here’s a review from a Haitian American:

“As a Haitian American, I had a serious problem with the second main story (especially because of Banks’ fine style), Claude and Vanise’s story. I wept. It was fiction, but I wept. I remembered how I came here as a small boy. I remembered what happened to my mother, but I won’t go into that. And I was angry because Mr. Banks is not Haitian. I kept waiting for him to get it wrong — there were some stereotypical things, but they were minor. This is the story I kept wishing someone would write.”

Anthony Hopkins, James Coburn and Nick Nolte have all given Oscar level performances in Russell Banks movies. That has to say something about the books. I can’t wait for the movie of his prison book, Rule of the Bone. And I still have high hopes to see a movie of Continental Drift, a beautiful book about people seeking a better life.