Continental Drift: The Quest For the Lost American Dream

The American Dream, once a noble ideal of freedom and individualism, has been replaced by a ruthless game for money, at the expense of freedom and morality. In his novel Continental Drift, Russell Banks highlights the interplay of money and freedom in his characters’ lives to highlight this substitution.Banks starts the story of Bob’s journey for freedom with a need for money. Money is seen as the central component for freedom here. Bob is a man who lives in a “working class-neighborhood” in a community where “…there’s never enough money, the men and the women tend to feel angry towards one another much of the time, especially in the evenings when the work is done and the children are sleeping and nothing seems to be improved over yesterday”(5). Here, Banks reveals the circumstances surrounding his protagonist; an environment in which happiness and freedom are diminished by poverty. Upon experiencing his first epiphany, or what he calls a “nervous breakdown” Bob keeps referring to his family’s need for money as “being dead.” The idea that he actually doesn’t want to be taken off his overtime at work so he can “handle the mortgage next month” is ‘being dead.” Not affording paint, storm windows and oil to burn for his house and owing money on his car and his boat: all that is “being dead.” When he revisits his childhood dream of becoming successful, Bob tells his wife he “used to say ‘we’ll make a killing.'” A figure of speech used frequently throughout the book, it addresses the theme of power and its attainment. It is also the reader’s first clue to the tragic events that Bob experiences in his delusional pursuance of the American Dream. Right from the beginning, Banks introduced the connection between money, power and freedom, though at this point it is still undefined.When Bob reaches Florida, money becomes a significant feature of the novel and the words “making a killing” take on much deeper meaning. The readers are introduced to Bob’s brother, Eddie, a man who has “a new house on the lake in Florida, a new boat,” a successful business, and “sends his kid to horseback lessons”(31); he is the epitome of the American Dream. In one passage, Eddie reveals his “guiding light, philosophy of life… religion,” which is “money is what makes the world go round”(73/4). Yet, Eddie is a man who has “real problems” as he reveals to his brother later on in the novel. His “shady” dealings were great sources of wealth as well as inescapable fear; a fear that placed him under constant pressure to make more and more money. The first demand that Eddie makes of his brother upon offering him a job is to take a gun to protect the money that will be earned in his liquor store. Bob explains his reluctance to take the gun from his brother by saying that “he doesn’t even like hunting.” Banks then explains that Bob is “a fisherman not a hunter”(68). The meaning of this metaphor is vital in understanding Bob and subsequent events in the novel; it is also of grave implication on the essence of the “American Dream.” Even though Bob claims not to be a hunter, he still wants to “make a killing;” this literary paradox is represented throughout the novel in a series of events in which Bob, who tries to assume a role not fit for him, loses his ‘goodness.’ The first of those events is when he sees the man who tried to steal the money from the liquor store and kills him. Although Bob had earlier defended his decision of not killing the boy when he had the chance, all of a sudden he was possessed with a ruthless bloodthirsty need to “shoot the boy.” He wanted to release all that frustration, anger and confusion into this single act that seemed “irresistible to him” – to become the ‘hunter’. Failing to satisfy his desire, Bob explains his behavior to his lover Marguirite, saying that having not killed the boy when he had the chance the first time, he ended up “looking like he don’t (sic) have any brains, or else too much decency, which amounts to the same thing nowadays.” Thus, he wanted to kill the boy. Bob has succumbed to the twentieth century’s version of the “American Dream.”It is true though that Bob Dubois does partially recover from this world of ruthless existence, and quits his job at the liquor store. Nevertheless, Bob is not happy, not free, for he has a wife and children to support and yet no source of income. He has recovered merely a facade of the “dutiful, prudent, custodial, and even-tempered” husband and father; his true underlying self, “a feckless, reckless, irresponsible, faithless and irrational” man. At this point in Bob’s life, and in the midst of his desperation, Avery Boone, his childhood best friend, appears offering a partnership that will ‘save’ Bob’s life and more importantly make him “rich”, ironically by becoming a fisherman. Unfortunately, the reality that Bob and his family face is far from that. In fact Bob and his family end up with less money than they had before; resentment, anger and frustration replace the love that was between his wife and himself. For in Florida, one cannot be a ‘fisherman’, to survive one must ‘make a killing.’ Bob asked Ave for help and found that his best friend had his ‘own problems’, much as Eddie did earlier in the novel. This is when Bob reached ‘rock bottom’ and realized that he had lost everything. “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….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”(313/14).Bob decides to take on the offer of smuggling Haitians, and this is truly when Bob, “the New Hampshire country boy,” loses his goodness. Towards the end, Banks makes the destructiveness of money more clear. In a key passage in the novel, when Bob is aboard the Belinda Blue with the Haitians, Bob stands next to Claude, a Haitian, who eagerly awaits his arrival in America. Bob looks at the boy as though looking at a reflection of his own long lost innocence and at this moment reveals the real ‘American Dream’. “You’ll get to America, all right kid,” he says to Claude “and maybe just like me you’ll get what you want…But you’ll have to give something away for it… And when you get what you want, it’ll turn out to be not what you wanted after all, because it’ll always be worth less than what you gave away for it.” Bob then summarizes the relationship of money and freedom in a single statement, “in the land of the free, nothing’s free.” This statement, the prelude to Bob’s own tragic ending, explains why Bob had to die, because like Eddie and Ave, Bob had to pay for the money that he acquired at the expense of others. When the Haitians aboard the Belinda Blue all drown except for one woman drowned in a “human tragedy”, Bob knew that this was the end of his journey. The journey which was once led by the illusion that he will be rich, happy and free. The result was that he lost any dignity and even peace of mind that he had possessed; he also lost the little control he had which had made his life his own. Finally realizing that the money was destroying his life, he tries to release himself from its hold on him, to “redeem” himself and perhaps start over with his wife and children again. In New Hampshire he knows he can live peacefully, where he can earn an honest living, one that doesn’t cost others’ lives; where he can be a ‘fisherman’. In this final attempt, Bob takes the money that he had acquired from smuggling the Haitians, and, trying to rid himself of the shame and sin, he goes to a little Haitian town where he tries to find Vanise, the sole Haitian survivor. Bob believes that giving the money to its due owner is the only way that he will be able to reclaim his soul, his conscience and his life; it is his “only and last chance to purge himself of the consequences of his crime.” Thus, when Vanise denies him this chance by refusing to take the money, she kills him just like he killed her son, her nephew and all those other Haitians who were aboard the ship. Bob then is stabbed to death protecting the money against four Haitians muggers. In a final, helpless cry “No the money is mine” Bob declares that if he has been denied his “redemption” then he is still not willing to let go of his “American Dream.” The hunter falls prey to his own game.Continental Drift is a story about a man who had a dream that he will be successful and ‘make it in the world.’ Unfortunately, in his quest for that dream, Bob stumbles over a world void of inspiration, and driven by a ruthless desire for money at the cost of dehumanization. Here Bob, like many others before him, is forced to leave his childhood dreams behind and forfeit the few possessions which he had taken for granted.