I’d not heard of the American writer Tom Drury until his name popped up a New Yorker fiction podcast, on which Antonya Nelson chose to read the short story, “Accident at the Sugar Beet”. At first, I didn’t seem to be enjoying it very much and then I was. Oddly anecdotal, sort of comic without being laugh out loud, a bunch of folk somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa living lives that never quite seemed to connect. Hmm …
But the name stuck. Touring the fiction floor of Charing Cross Foyles, it jumped out. Tom Drury: The End of Vandalism, with an introduction by Jon McGregor. The last time I read a book recommended by McGregor it was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun. ‘Nuff said.
His introduction begins with a warning …
If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try and foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it. You will become one of those people who quote the best sentences, flicking through the pages to where you have them underlined.
Well, maybe … and maybe McGregor’s favourite sentences aren’t the same as mine, so I’m not sure if I’m as keen to get out and proselytise on behalf of the book quite so wholeheartedly. But … but …
But there was this problem I had to shake off, something along the lines of – this is all very well, diverting enough, entertaining on a fairly superficial level – small town folk leading small town lives, forever engaging in conversations which seem to be made up almost entirely of non sequiturs – but is it any more than that, and if it’s not … ?
If you live in the real world (McGregor argues), where life stalls and lurches forward with little real pattern and where the textures of our relationships accumulate moment by moment, then this is a novel you will recognise as being crammed with narrative. These are not just quirky rural anecdotes Drury is spinning out for us. These are intricate, interconnected stories of the big things that happen in people’s lives; the failures and successes of relationships, businesses and families, the making and thwarting of plans.
From the myriad of characters, two stand out –Louise Darling, a photographer’s assistant, and Dan Norman, the county sheriff – their relationship, at first tenuous, almost accidental, taking on an admirable resilience as it assumes a central position in the novel’s – and our – concerns. Drury has pulled off a brilliant trick: somehow, between all of the rigamarole of the novel’s seemingly casual unfolding, Drury has given us a relationship we both believe in and care about, so that when, a little over three-quarters of the way through the novel, the tone stiffens, shrugs off its humour, and places the now pregnant Louise in mortal jeopardy, each turning of the page becomes an act of will, an act of wishing.
So, McGregor wins. Drury wins. I’ve already started reading the novel, parts of it, again. It was Drury’s first, originally published in 1994, and Old Street Publishing, who brought out this handsome reissue, are set to publish the second, Hunts in Dreams, in July.
Not soon enough.