IF YOU'VE read Robert Stone, if you've read Joan DiDoctorow -- if you've read these and other practitioners of state-of-the-art fiction, then you have only one question to ask about Continental Drift: Is this book really necessary? Do we really need yet another piece of tired '60s ideology masquerading as a novel? Do we really need yet another example of the neo-tough-guy school, bristling with drug dealers and fast-buck operators and mobsters and other symbols of American greed? Do we really need yet another book that, after more than 300 pages of heavy ideological breathing, comes up with this as its moral:
"Bob says nothing but smiles down at the (Haitian) boy, who has gone quickly back to searching for America. Like me, Bob thinks. Like my father . . . like all of us up in our crow's nests keeping our eyes peeled for the Statue of Liberty or the first glint off those gold-paved streets. America! Land, ho! Only, like Columbus and all those guys looking for the Fountain of Youth, when you finally get to America, you get something else. You get Disney World and land deals and fast-moving high-interest bank loans, and if you don't get the hell out of the way, they'll knock you down, cut you up with a harrow and plow you under, so they can throw some condos up on top of you or maybe a parking lot or maybe an orange grove."
Like, wow. That's deep. "In the land of the free, nothing's free." Why, that's almost as heavy as Simon and Garfunkel, or Joan Baez, or Country Joe and the Fish. The '60s may be dead and gone everywhere else, but in the writing departments and the novels their professors grind out, the '60s are forever. Continental Drift is an archetypal example of the genre; if you needed one for a time capsule, it would be a toss-up between Continental Drift and the novel it almost eerily mirrors, Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise. All the usual suspects are there: American innocence corrupted by American venality; the pervasive racism of American life; the American imperialist impulse; the destruction of the American landscape; the rootlessness and disconnection of American society. Somehow Russell Banks managed to leave out Richard Nixon and the CIA, but otherwise you can get anything you want in Banks' restaurant.
Why Banks has done this is a mystery. He is, as his previous seven books demonstrated, a good and intelligent writer who is capable of considerable originality and who has demonstrated an interest, unusual among contemporary writers of fiction, in the lives of ordinary Americans. But there is nothing original or arresting about Continental Drift. It says -- or, more accurately, it screams -- all the things that all the other fashionable writers are saying, and it says none of them in an interesting way. Its characters are not people, but puppets on the string of politics; its settings are not places, but stages upon which the puppets prance; its themes are not developed through the unfolding of character and story, but are hammered on as if they were posters.
All of this literary huffing and puffing centers on Bob Dubois, a 30-year-old oil-burner repairman who lives in a small New Hampshire town with his wife and two small daughters. One dark night he is suddenly hit by a dreadful sense that his life is empty and his future bleak; he feels "foolish" and "cheated" because somehow the American Dream doesn't seem to be delivering for him. So the Dubois family sells most of its possessions, packs itself into its car, and heads for Florida, where Bob will manage a liquor store owned by his older brother: "they have done a terrible and frightening thing: they have traded one life for another, and this new life is now the only one they have."
It's terrible and frightening, all right. Bob's brother, Eddie, is a fast-talking and foul-mouthed fellow who, we eventually learn, is building his Central Florida house of cards with the deadly assistance of Mafiosi. He insists that Bob pack a gun while on duty, which predictably results in a death when a couple of guys try to hold up the store. The guys are black, of course, which puts Bob in a terrible emotional bind because he has only recently discovered that black is beautiful and has begun an affair with a black woman.
MEANTIME, speaking of blacks, there is this young woman in Haiti named Vanise Dorsinville who seeks to escape that benighted island and serve herself a nice portion of the American Dream. She sets forth, with her infant son and young nephew, on a series of voyages from island to island, exploited (usually sexually) at each stop, by men of all colors and persuasions. We are meant to understand that her journey is a metaphor for the trans-Atlantic shipment of slaves. "They had come over three hundred miles as if chained in darkness, a middle passage," we are told at one point, and at another that they have been deprived of "what little freedom remained in their possession." It does not take a genius to get the message.
Nor does it take a genius to figure out that Bob and Vanise will eventually meet up with each other, and that good things will not come of the encounter. By the time this meeting occurs all manner of awful things have happened to Bob; those who are sufficiently curious about what they are are welcome to read the novel. Suffice it to say:
"It's over. He's ruined everything, he's lost everything, he's given away everything. There was the house [in New Hampshire] and the Boston whaler, their furniture, shabby and mostly secondhand, but theirs, and his job at Abenaki Oil and promises of an eventual office job there -- there was a life, and because it was under his control, it was his life; and then he traded a big part of that life for one with more promises and less control, but even so, it felt much of the time like his life, for there was still a part of it that he controlled; and then he made another trade, giving away control for promises again, property for dreams, each step of the way, until he's ended up tonight with nothing but promises, dreams and fantasies left to trade with. And no takers."
That's how Continental Drift sounds, from first page to last: didactic, expository, preachy. Banks doesn't show, he tells. He doesn't characterize, he pontificates ("Men do that to women, use them to remake themselves, just as women do it to men") and he labors: "And this is what he's been denying himself, keeping it from himself so that he could go on thinking he didn't love her, so that he could go on trying to love a different woman, a woman he thinks is probably not good, or at least she's a woman whose goodness he's incapable of seeing, as he sees Elaine's goodness now, imply by looking down at her wrist."
Continental Drift offers nearly 400 pages of this, not to mention numerous instances of sexual activity that, in the merciless and mechanical detail with which it is described, put John Updike to shame. Sex and politics: these are the chief and, to all intents and purposes, the only ingredients of Continental Drift. Among those who believe that these are also the chief ingredients of literature the book no doubt will be enthusiastically received, for it does all the things that fashionable fiction is supposed to do. But readers who look for genuine seriousness in fiction, as opposed to passing ideological fancy, will find none of it here. Continental Drift is, in every respect that counts, a shallow, empty book.