When I went to graduate school for writing, I learned that there are grad school books and authors. These are the authors or titles you likely have never heard of before entering an MFA program, but you're going to hear about them before they let you leave. During my two years there, no unknown name came up more than Russell Banks. Three of my four mentors highly pushed his work to me. Each pushing a different title (one mentor recommended two or three different titles). At the time, I did read The Sweet Hereafter, which I enjoyed somewhat, but Banks didn't grasp my attention enough to completely reel me in. It has been eight years since I read that novel, so I felt it was time to give Banks another shot. This time he certainly reeled me in.
I had to look back on my review of The Sweet Hereafter to recall why I didn't love it. Apparently, I thought Banks was ineffective at accurately giving voice to his characters. I find this surprising, because this was certainly not a problem in Continental Drift. I actually thought Banks did a marvelous job giving voice to his characters. Maybe that was the case with my first outing with Banks. Maybe I'm just a much different reader now.
Continental Drift is one of the most—if not the single most—American novel I've ever read. It's the story of people from different backgrounds who are struggling to get ahead. Each believes there is hope in a dream that is unequivocally American. The strength of these characters and the believability Banks lends to their situations are two of the largest components to this novel's excellence. These are characters who genuinely believe they're good people despite the evidence to the contrary. This is the heart and soul of America.
This is a novel that can be disgusting, depressing, or offensive to its reader. It puts on display a cross-section of the American people, their selfish justification and their pompous dream. I've never heard Continental Drift among the list of contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but I certainly believe there are few novels more American than this. Banks is an author I will assuredly return to.