Way back in the summer of 2020, during the height of Covid when reading was at its modern peak, someone hipped me to the author Tom Drury. I can't remember now exactly who should get credit for that. I don't recall if it was a friend, a rando on Twitter, or a blog somewhere. But the gist, as I recall, was that he was one of the best authors I'd never heard of, who created interesting and fun characters.
I started at the start on Drury, with his debut novel, The End of Vandalism, purchased in paperback form via ebay. The most prominent quote on the back was offered up by Annie Dillard, who said, "Brilliant, wonderfully funny ... It's hard to think of any novel--let alone a first novel--in which you can hear the people so well. This is indeed deadpan humor, and Tom Drury is its master."
The edition I received includes an introduction by Paul Winner, who lauded Drury's characters and humor while acknowledging that plot wasn't necessarily the be-all, end-all of the book. "Plot, as I understand it, forms and explains the connection between causes and effects, but Drury looks at plot with what is known to locals of this region as Midwestern Nice: a dismissal, polite and kindly, and worth no more than a tight-lipped nod in its general direction." In other words, the lack of a hard-driving plot here was considered a feature, not a bug.
And despite what most writing teachers, coaches, editors, et cetera, might have you believe, I think I'm not alone as a reader who doesn't necessarily mind that. If I like the characters enough to want to spend some time with them, maybe I don't need the story all wrapped up in a bow every single time. Maybe I just want to ride shotgun and see what happens.
I read The End of Vandalism that summer and I liked it. Well enough. There were parts I thought were hilarious, especially in the first half. The characters lived up to their billing, with a trio taking center stage: Grouse County Sheriff Dan Norman, his love interest Louise Darling, and her ex, Tiny Darling. Tiny is, as Winner puts is, "a petty thief and the county fuckup." And hands down the funniest one in the book. Stupid, yes, but not without interesting thoughts, which he often shares willingly.
Without giving too much away, despite its somewhat meandering nature, the story took a bit of a dark turn toward the end, when Louise takes off from Iowa for Minnesota to have some time away, leaving Dan to wonder exactly where his marriage stands.
I think that put me off just enough at the time that I didn't pursue the rest of Drury's catalog.
And then something struck me this spring when I was working on a new manuscript. Well, an old manuscript that had been set aside and finally resumed. There was just a little bit going on with some of my characters that my mind wandered back to Grouse County. So I logged back onto ebay and hunted down the rest of Drury's books.
What I didn't realize at that time was that two of them were essentially spinoffs from The End of Vandalism: Hunts in Dreams, which focuses on Tiny and his new family, and Pacific, which follows Tiny's son, Micah, and second ex-wife, Joan, to California. Both follow a similar formula to the original, though I didn't find either nearly as humorous as The End of Vandalism. Drury's characters are so realistic at times that what they do can almost seem unremarkable. Pacific was the stronger of the two, but if I had read it first instead of The End of Vandalism, it's possible I would never have gone any further.
Next came The Driftless Area, which is described as neo-noir. It's set in the Midwest, where a young bartender named Pierre Hunter is saved from drowning after falling through the ice one night by a beautiful woman. But it's no coincidence she was there to save him, as the whole thing turns out to be a convoluted setup. Though it can at times dwell on what seems like minutia, it's generally fast-paced and interesting enough to pull you along, and there's definitely no shortage of plot. Some of Pierre's actions and dialogue at times give off a Grouse County feel, which doesn't always fit. There is also more than a hint of supernatural.
And then I read The Black Brook, which thematically aligns closest to The Driftless Area. Again we have a mystery with a main character who is being hunted by baddies, though this time they at least have a reason to target him, as he squealed in the witness box years earlier. After splitting with his wife, who heads back to their safe, new life in Europe, Paul Emmons has the poor sense to return home to New England, where he takes up with a woman he first had feelings for in college. Of course, she's married to their former college roommate (it's complicated). Further exposing himself, he takes a job as a reporter for the small, local paper. And becomes obsessed with the ghost of a woman who once lived in his house. There's art forgery, mob violence and revenge, and a very puzzling side trip to Scotland.
Ultimately, it didn't work for me. It felt all too random at times. There was a plot here, but it was moving in too many directions all at the same time. I appreciate that he was trying to do something different with what chronologically was his followup to The End of Vandalism, but what made his debut work for me just didn't exist here. The characters weren't fun, or even really all that likeable. The story was confusing and at times not even all that believable. I finished mainly because I wanted to complete the set.
So, Drury ... yes, and no. If you are in the great characters can outweigh the lack of a strong central plot camp, I would highly recommend The End of Vandalism (which I think I appreciated more the second time around when I re-read it this summer). And start there, for sure. If you enjoy that, spend a little more time with Tiny and family in Hunts in Dreams and Pacific. Give The Driftless Area a shot if you're into the whole noir thing. And if you want more, well, maybe you'll appreciate something I didn't in The Black Brook.
Apart from the stories themselves, two interesting notes on the books I received. My copy of The Driftless Area appears to have been signed by the author, unless perhaps another Tom D. personalized a gift back at Christmas 2015, which is when it's dated. And my The Black Brook is a hardback version that once belonged to the Oconomowoc Public Library in Oconomowoc, Wisc. It looks to have been checked out only once, in February 1999, according to the card in the pocket affixed to the inside back cover. That little glimpse of its history may be my favorite thing about the book.