I just finished Continental Drift by Russell Banks. It's pretty amazing storytelling, although I'm not sure I really find the ending all that plausible. Of course, whenever I think that to myself I go back and think about how much I really really enjoy reading Faulkner, despite the relative implausibility of many of his situations (Light in August anyone?). So it isn't really that it's improbable; it's more a question of how we get from point A to point B, and I know the character was seeking atonement, but I'm not clear that point B really was the proper destination. Or better: point B may have been the proper destination but we simply hadn't arrived yet.
Banks is brilliant at evoking the competing emotions and external forces that make our lives not our own, even while giving his characters the dignity and power of making whatever choices they can to make their lives their own. As Marx argues, "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past." So Bob Dubois, a New Englander transplanted to Florida, finds himself caught up in a few dead end jobs, the effects of a pervasively racist society, and the difference between commitment and desire. In the novel's other storyline, Vanise Dorsinville, a Haitian refugee, finds herself, through a relative's almost trivial transgression, thrown into a chain of events that leads her through servitude, rape, and murder to Miami's Little Haiti.
Among the most disturbing aspects of the story is how little will Vanise seems to exhibit: she more or less accepts the fate supplied to her, as if she were an object that only moved when an outside force moved it, which in this case is often her nephew, Claude (whose transgression -- stealing a ham from a wrecked truck -- started their flight in motion). Her situation is harrowing, and Banks' point is well-taken: when you have nothing else to trade, your body is your sole commodity.
Bob learns as well that he has little to offer outside his own (laboring) body, first as a heating oil company repairman, then as a liquor store manager, and finally as a captain who leads recreational fishing tours on someone else's boat. He's made bad decisions by putting his faith in the promises of family and friends, and by the time he and Vanise's stories intersect, he has sacrificed his principles in a last hope to get his head above water.
The story has resonance with John Dos Passos's colossal USA Trilogy, especially the final book, The Big Money, where the characters lose their ways in pursuit of quick riches and power. It's an apt pairing, because both Banks and Dos Passos have been excellent chroniclers of the dreams and disasters of American life.
For my next book, I'm turning to the very recent The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu. It was published this year and it's set in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, and serves as both a chronicle of the immigrant experience and a tale of gentrification.