I’ve written before about the American novelist, Tom Drury, here, and feel the need to do so again. In his introduction to the Old Street reissue of Drury’s first novel, The End of Vandalism, Jon McGregor warns potential readers of the dangers of becoming obsessed with Drury’s writing, and that seems to be what has happened to me. Sticking to chronological order, I next read The Black Brook, only parts of which worked for me, it certainly didn’t cast the same kind of spell [the difficult second novel?] but with Hunts in Dreams, Drury is back on track – and back in the same territory as The End of Vandalism, obscure, small-town Ohio – and I was captivated once more.
He plays, it seems to me, pretty much the same writerly trick, casting us more or less adrift amidst a small welter of inter-connecting, or more usually, not-quite-connecting, characters, confuses us (and, sometimes, them) with assorted non-sequitors, roads not taken, missed opportunities and misunderstood conversations, before levelling out, tightening down and concentrating on a smaller number of characters and their evolving situations. The prose becomes more straightforward and seemingly controlled (though it’s always been that) at the same time as taking on a poetic edge which seems, at times, to veer towards the over-sentimental, while avoiding it by maintaining, below the surface, a constant sense of danger.
Take this passage from Hunts in Dreams: Octavia is about to run off with a man considerably older than herself and has persuaded her elder brother to drive her to meet him.
He left. Octavia stood beneath a larch tree, suitcase by her feet. In it she had packed clothes, bracelets, makeup, two sandwiches, and a journal of blank pages. She had never been able to write down her thoughts, which had seemed so run-of-the-mill. Now things would be different.
Her brother stopped a half-mile away. The taillights shone on a hill. Probably he wanted to be sure that her ride would come. He could be very sweet in his way. Her whole family appeared benign, if misguided, in retrospect. Her mother would take it hardest, would feel so cheated. But November would come, December, snow would fly from the rooftops, and she would know her daughter was gone.
Jerry arrived just when it seemed he would not. He took her hands and held them out and asked her to let him look at her. She wore a CPO coat over a black dress. The wind gusted in the branches.
“Where should we go?” he said.
She pushed strands of hair from her forehead. “Texas?”
“I heard it was nice,” she said softly, the toe of her shoe turning in the grass.
“If you read this book properly,” says McGregor, “you will become invested in these lives. And this investment will be something you have created, as a reader, in collaboration with Drury. You will have given life to these people, only to let them experience pain. You will have allowed yourself to feel something like love for a group of complicated characters who do messy and regrettable and sometimes unlikeable things.”
The young and naive Octavia and her middle-aged postman lover in Texas – how do we think that’s going to work out exactly? She’s moving on from a largely dysfunctional family to an impossibly romantic fairy tale dream; Jerry’s already thinking if we get two good years that’s enough. He’s likely right, two years at best, but he could be wrong, things might fall apart before they reach the border. Or, then again, the thing about dreams, in life as well as fiction, just occasionally they have a way of coming true.
Is it always the women in Drury’s novels who are unsatisfied, who are forever searching for something different, something better, more fulfilling? [Like the Brangwen women at the beginning of The Rainbow? Like women everywhere??] Joan is married to Jerry’s brother, Charles; she and Charles have a son, Micah, and she has a daughter, Lyris, who has only recently come to live with them. For some time, Joan has felt there is something missing in her life, something out of reach but which she feels the need to strive for. [It’s no coincidence that she has played Masha in a production of The Seagull]. When she leaves town for a working weekend away, Charles is afraid she might be contemplating having a brief affair. But it is more serious than that: she’s thinking of leaving. She calls Charles and tells him she won’t be home on Monday; she won’t be home till spring.
She left the hotel with her suitcase in her hand. There was almost nothing in it, but she didn’t want to be the sort of woman who begins a new life without a suitcase.
The streets that had been empty yesterday were now very busy. Everyone had somewhere to go, and so did she, although she did not know where. Charles would tell the children, and there would be no going back now. He would tell them at the first chance, and with bitterness. If only she had kept Lyris as an infant instead of having her handed back so late, things would have been different. Yet they might all wait for her. Micah would; he was true-blue. And spring was not far away. It would be winter and then it would be spring. She wondered if she would keep her promise. It was easier to say “I’ll be home in the spring” than it was to say “I won’t be coming home.”
So many women on the edge of going; so many women with suitcases by their sides, in their hands, waiting at the kerb.
Makes me think of Nanci Griffith singing …
Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs
I’ve got a ticket in my pocket says I’ll make it out of here,
And I came by here just to tell you goodbye
I can see it in your face that you don’t want to know why;
I made up my mind late last night that I would leave your city behind.
Oh, and love is not in question when you’re holding the answer
In your cold heart and closed mind;
Oh, you got a cold heart and a closed mind.
Cold Hearts / Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith
Tracy Thorn of Everything But The Girl singing …
Don’t talk to me in that familiar way
When the keys are in my hand;
Don’t say that everything is here to stay
And I must try to understand
Bittersweet : Tracey Thorn & Ben Watt