The End of Vandalism, 1994
The Black Brook, 1998
Hunts in Dreams, 2000
Tom Drury’s deadpan rendering of the disquieting desperation of small-town lives recalls the edgy psychological realism and poignant pathos of Anton Chekhov, and his unadorned prose line has linked his work to the minimalist experiments of Raymond Carver. Drury was born and raised in Mason City, Iowa, in the heart of the vast midwestern flatness that figures so prominently in his fiction. Although he came of age during the civil unrest generated by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, Drury grew up in the relative quiet of middle America. His father worked for the Great Western Railroad, his mother for People’s Gas and Electric. His childhood was low-keyed and uneventful, thus giving Drury’s fiction its unerring sympathy for the struggle in the quietest lives to find purpose and to affirm the dignity of the self in a decidedly indifferent universe.
Drury earned a journalism degree from the University of Iowa. Although early on he had considered writing fiction, newspaper work offered a more secure future. Upon graduation, he headed east and worked for several years as a reporter for newspapers in both Connecticut and Rhode Island. Wary of the dead-end promise of string reporting, he applied to the graduate Creative Writing Program at Brown University. After completing that degree, Drury began publishing essays and short fiction in, among other places, Ploughshares, Harper’s, The New York Times, and George, gaining the attention of the New York literary community.
A series of stories about residents of fictitious Grouse County, Iowa, that Drury published in The New Yorker provided the basis of his first novel, The End of Vandalism, about a love triangle between a small-time thief, the thief’s ex-wife, and the soft-hearted deputy she eventually marries, who then must endure the stillbirth of their first child. Here, Drury would define many of his critical themes: the fragile hope in the smallest hearts for the promise of purpose; the hunger for the sweet intrusion of love and its inevitable collapse into cool disappointment; the difficult adjustment to the shocking invasion of bad luck; and the hunger among those locked too soon into routine to touch the bracing possibility of adventure. Partly because of its inception as a series of stories, the novel offers less of the sustained action of a traditional novel and more of a series of involving vignettes. These are comic interactions among the large cast of quirky characters Drury creates, much like Garrison Keillor in his Lake Wobegon stories, by deftly revealing behavior in a few memorable strokes. Drury’s style, accumulations of apparently unaffected declarative sentences, offers precise, reportorial detailing of the press and feel of a Midwest that is ironically both vast and confining.
The critical acclaim the novel received included its being named one of the year’s best novels by New York magazine and Publishers Weekly and, in 1996, Drury’s being named by Britain’s prestigious literary magazine Granta as one of the best American novelists under forty. Drury accepted a number of academic appointments, including those at Yale University and the University of Southern Mississippi. In 2001 he took a position in the Creative Writing Program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, which he held until 2002, when he returned to journalism, taking a position at the St. Petersburg Times.
Drury then branched out into a more experimental work, The Black Brook, which relates the eccentric experiences of Paul Nash, an amoral Connecticut accountant involved in money laundering and eventually art forgery for the Mob. Paul turns state’s evidence but decides to abandon the security of the federal Witness Protection Program (and the bed and breakfast he and his artist-wife run in Belgium) and return to Connecticut. There he works as a swing-reporter, still hounded by the Mob he crossed. Paul becomes intrigued by the story of a long-ago suicide of a beautiful young teacher trapped in a loveless marriage, whose mesmerizing ghost apparently haunts the cottage in which he lives. Clearly more flamboyant in its plotting than its predecessor, The Black Brook is an episodic narrative that aptly demonstrates what Paul’s uncle cautions him: “Very easy to get into trouble. Very hard to get out.” For all its wide-ranging plot, its dozens of eccentric characters, its deadpan delivery, and its often comic dialogue, the novel affirms Drury’s principal theme. That theme is suggested by the John Singer Sargent painting The Black Brook, which a Mob boss wants Paul’s wife to forge. The painting is apparently a simple character study of a pensive woman posed next to a running stream, but, as the Mob boss explains, the stream is a mere distraction–what is really shown is the unreachable sadness in the young woman’s face that, like the sadness in Drury’s own characters, is revealed, although the characters themselves cannot articulate it or may not even realize it.
In Hunts in Dreams, a slender, starkly lyrical work, Drury returned to the Midwest and to the small-town characters of his first novel. Here he narrows the focus to an anatomy of a single family under enormous emotional pressure over a single weekend. Taking its cue from a heartbreaking couplet from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” about the need to dream among those trapped in suffocating lives, Drury’s characters do not hunger for the traditional reward of fiction, the epiphanic moment of understanding. Rather, they hunger for what is so obviously impossible: deliverance, rescue from their quotidian existence. A husband–a plumber obsessed with reclaiming a vintage shotgun that once belonged to his stepfather–ignores the implosion of his marriage as his wife, a former actress turned born-again Christian turned animal-rights activist, has a one-night stand with the family doctor–a porn aficionado who plays to her loneliness–during a weekend animal-welfare convention. She then decides to pursue her long-deferred dream of being an actress, leaving her husband to contend not only with their son, a troubling seven-year-old prone to imaginative flights and to random acts of petty cruelty, but also with a stepdaughter given up for adoption by the wife sixteen years earlier and only recently returned by a foster parent program. These characters, under the direction of a sympathetic Drury, struggle with dreams they cannot shake, indeed cannot even articulate, and their hunger to violate their loneliness. What endures, as the novel moves to its quiet close, is the family itself, imperfect but resilient. The novel marks a significant maturing of Drury’s vision into the revelatory, the humane, and the gently comic.