Continental Drift charts the downward mobility of a handful of unfortunate souls in the early 1980’s, amid the shrieking death-cries of late capitalism.
Bob Dubois is a blue-collar radiator repairman. He works his dull job and supports his wife and kids. To take the edge off the day he visits a bar near his work and enjoys the warm affections of another woman. Life is relatively stable, if a bit dreary. Anyway, one night he snaps. It’s a combination of a few factors. Mostly he is feeling guilty about sleeping with his girlfriend when he should have been buying ice skates for his daughter. He’s upset that the skates are so expensive and he’s mad that the store is closing and that he’ll be coming home empty-handed without so much as an alibi. So he throws a fit, and starts punching the windshield of his car until he smashes it in an over-the-top meltdown. It was hard for me to work up much sympathy for the man. I wanted to grab him by the shirt and say, “Why are you acting like such an immature little brat? Get a grip!”
He comes home, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and somehow convinces his wife that what they need to do is make a fresh start in a new state. Bob remembers a summer he spent working on a boat, on the Florida coast and he feels that if he could just get back there, he’d find himself and the happiness that eludes him. Dreams of wealth and leisure glitter temptingly on the horizon.
The ease with which Bob and his wife sell their house and quit their jobs revealed a bit of datedness to the book, I thought. Selling a home in today’s treacherous real estate market would be drama enough to fill these pages. It garners barely a mention here. Walking away from a steady job of 20 years, with two children to support, comes across as far more reckless than courageous. Job security like that doesn’t exist anymore, so tossing it away seems unforgivably wasteful. You get the sense of people heading straight off a cliff, whether they know it or not.
But off they go. Of course, the moment the family arrives in their new home, it becomes apparent that their fantasies of the easy life have little bearing on reality. Bob’s brother has given him a job managing one of the liquor stores he owns, but it pays barely enough to pay for their shabby trailer home. The brother is a boorish character upon whom the entire family is now dependent. He’s a quintessential 1980’s man, ruled by a crude, materialistic ethos. There is an unbearable scene in which his wife describes buying a boat, on a lark, as a surprise birthday present for her husband. The couple is dripping with money and it is obvious to everyone but Bob that the man is involved in a serious drug running operation. His ever-expanding business empire looks more and more like a money-laundering scheme as time goes on. Beneath the shiny surfaces of “success” lies a dank world of corruption, greed and doom.
A dislocating culture shock unsettles Bob when his brother forces him to keep a gun behind the register. He wants nothing to do with the thing, but it isn’t long before he finds occasion to fire it, in an unthinkable break with his former self. Claustrophobia, paranoia and fear hang about the characters like a sickening, choking fog, yielding predictably terrible results. Adrenaline is always high, and the characters are always on the cusp or in the throes of catastrophe.
A major theme throughout the book is the fraught, ambivalent relationship between whites and blacks in this southern state. Bob is terrified of the black people that come in and out of the store. He pulls up to work one day and sees a car with two black passengers parked outside and this triggers a frenzied fight of flight response. He breaks out in a sweat, fumbling for the gun before recognizing one of the passengers as the shop’s elderly custodian. This disorienting experience, both for Bob and the reader, further emphasizes the ways in which fear distorts perception and quick second decisions mean the difference between life and death.
The custodian introduces Bob to his daughter, a nurse with whom Bob feels an instant infatuation. There is an element of exoticism about Bob’s attraction to her. Racial differences are highlighted rather than glossed over as they would be in a safer, more politically correct book. Sex is portrayed in hyper-erotic detail, and at the same time, with great humanity and compassion. There is failed sex in this story, but not “bad sex” in the sense of poorly written sex. As bad as it gets, it is never embarrassing for the reader as it is when it is handled with less skill and honesty.
Horror in its many guises is a frequent presence in this novel. Bob’s wife goes into unexpected labor while he is getting stoned with his girlfriend in a hotel room. This is the pre-cell phone era, and his wife has no way of reaching him. She has to ask a neighbor to take her to the hospital, leaving her kids at home in the care of a beer-guzzling acquaintance from the trailer park where they live.
When Bob finally arrives back at the house, in a post-coital, inebriated stupor, he is shattered to discover that his wife has had the baby while he was away. He rushes to the hospital to find his wife, dressed in white, baby in arms, saintly and pure, representing all that is good in the world. (The author laid it on a bit thick here, but why begrudge his character’s life-changing epiphany?) He decides immediately to cut off his affair and dedicate himself to caring for his wife and family.
Sadly, this moment of clarity and grace is short-lived. His family seems self-contained, uninterested in him, even against him. He begins to feel like an outsider in his own home. (When he starts breaking furniture against the walls, you can see why.) He has a falling out with his brother and quits his job out of spite at the precise moment he needs his job most. He ends up working on a fishing boat owned by an old friend, a man with whom he has a complicated history. Unspoken betrayals linger in the air between them.
The fishing gig deepens his downward trajectory. Bob finds himself desperate for money, willing to consider dangerous new avenues for profit, such as ferrying refugees from the Bahamas to Florida. It is here that Bob’s story intersects with a young Haitian mother, her child and an orphaned teenage boy whose hellish journey we’ve witnessed in the novel’s parallel narrative.
This second story line has the effect of dwarfing the significance of Bob’s and his family’s more abstract, existential drama. The horrors of human trafficking make all other concerns seem slight in comparison. Though their circumstances are wildly divergent, the characters are identical in their longing to fulfill their self-constructed fantasy of the American Dream.
There is a scene, which brought to mind the extreme shock and terror of the indelibly traumatic moments in Sophie’s Choice when the mother, with a gun to her head, sends her child to its death. In a chaotic scene of stark horror, the Haitian passengers are ordered to throw themselves and their children overboard, where they are instantly swept away. And there are many other atrocities leading up to these final, shattering moments.
There are so many layers of moral failing in this novel that the narrative finally collapses under its own weight, like a black hole. There is no redemption for any of the characters. I’m not sure if I completely agree with the book’s lofty post-script, but it provides an intriguing meditation on life and literature.
“Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even invented lives- no, especially wholly invented lives- deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book’s objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.”
Thirty years after its publication, Continental Drift remains chillingly relevant. Human failing and economic disaster feed off one another in an unholy alliance, then and now. This is not to say it couldn’t be another way. Perhaps, it is in confronting the ugliness of our human condition that we gain the clarity and will necessary to transform it.