I read mostly nonfiction these days, and seem to find very few novels that rise to my standards - which, I grant, may be ridiculously high. Every so often, I think maybe I just don't like contemporary fiction anymore. Then I read something by Roddy Doyle, or A. L. Kennedy, or William Trevor, or Toni Morrison - among others, there are definitely others - and my marvel at great fiction is restored. Russell Banks is one such writer.
I've just finished one of his early novels, Continental Drift. It tells the stories of two people from totally different cultures and parts of the earth - the working poor of small-town America, and the grinding poverty and repression of Haiti. Each are groping and questing, trying to find a way out. The reader assumes the two stories will intersect at some point, but nothing unfolds in predictable ways.
Banks has a profound understanding of people's internal motivations - the complex, unstated, largely subconscious inner workings behind the choices we make. (His male characters, especially, from New England or upstate New York, are incredibly well drawn.) In Continental Drift, the life journeys of the characters call up complicated questions of moral confusion, identity, racism, love, attraction, and the definitions of success and happiness - what it means to be a good person, or a person at all - in a superficial, consumerist, materialistic world. It's tremendously ambitious, beautifully written, very moving and disturbing in all the right ways.
This is from "About Russell Banks" at the end of the Canadian paperback edition of Continental Drift. It's unsigned, so it may be written by the author himself.
The novel is the story of Bob Dubois, a burnt-out oil burner repairman from New Hampshire struggling to escape mediocrity, and Vanise Dorsinville, a refugee struggling to escape Haiti for the promised land of America, and the tragedy that ensues when they become involved in each other's destiny. The novel's title refers to the theory that the earth's continents were once a united land mass that broke up and continues to drift slowly apart. Banks, however, is referring to demographic, not geologic, drifting, as people all over the world flee their homes in search of new lives. He is also describing the drift that occurs between human hearts, leaving an unbridgeable gap between husbands and wives, families and friends.Banks himself has an interesting history. From a working class and troubled background, Banks was an adult before he attempted any writing. He was 35 years old when his first book was published, and 45 when he achieved critical success. Those are the kinds of stories, like that of William Kennedy, that used to sustain me as a writer.
If you haven't yet read Russell Banks, his novel Cloudsplitter, about the radical abolitionist John Brown, is his masterpiece (so far). Rule of the Bone is one of the finest young adult crossover novels of our time. I think of it as grandchild to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which it consciously echoes, and child to The Catcher in the Rye.