Tom Drury has published six novels and has been featured in The New Yorker (where The End of Vandalism was first serialized), Harpers and, maybe most significantly, in Granta as a ‘Best of Young American Novelists’ alumni back in Issue 54, alongside Eugenides, Franzen, Mona Simpson, Elizabeth McCracken, Edwidge Danticat, Sherman Alexie and the rest: out of that elite crew, then, he’s one of the few that hadn’t crossed our paths before. This year, however, a slate of Drury reprints are due to hit the shelves, and The End of Vandalism, his second novel, is the forerunner. He’s touted as Faulkner-meets-Sherwood Anderson, so we thought, hey, what have we been missing?
First, then: the book. The End of Vandalism, like we said, was first published as a serial back in 1994, and sure enough, it’s got an episodic, meandering feel to it – a kind of ‘here’s-a-recap’ circling around character and incident – that’s more familiar, these days, from long-ish running TV serials than from printed books. It’s set in Grouse County, a fictional Midwestern locale dotted with small, dying towns, and it follows, mostly, three main characters: Dan, the County sheriff; Louise, his wife; and Tiny, Louise’s ex-husband. Louise’s mother, Mary, and Tiny’s crackpot ex-addict pal, Johnny, are two of the expansive supporting cast. The plot, or plots, are loose; it’s more of an anecdotal number, though the development of Louise and Dan’s relationship, and Tiny’s reaction to it, tethers the book somewhere in the region of continual development even as Drury shoots it off in various directions to explore the nuances of life across the county. Although the plot dips into tragedy at times (no spoilers, but there’s a section starring Louise and dealing with bereavement that’s properly sad), it’s still by and large a comedy, and Drury’s got a dry delivery, particularly in dialogue, that’ll get under your skin and keep you chuckling afterwards. We’re not going to deny that it took us a while to get in the swing, though; that same flatness that illuminates the absurdity in his characters’ situations, outlooks and commentary as the book goes on presented itself first as a pretty shallow, affectless style that veered on the edge of fun-poking. It is a sharp humour, though, and as the book progresses and the characters recur, what seems like the superficial mimicry of a ‘homepsun’ storytelling style starts to unfold into the deadpan wit of somebody like David Sedaris – and while Drury’s plain style isn’t all that similar to Sedaris’s archness, he, too, nails the ridiculousness of social interactions and conversations while not losing the essential miseries and joys of normal, unexciting lives.
So it’s an easy read at a stylistic level, and a circuitous one at the level of plot. You have to settle in and go with the flow if you’re ever going to get on with it: it’s not pacey, and it’s not eventful in the sense of gathering drama and escalating tension, and it took us a while to find that rhythm and to appreciate the wit that’s almost obscured in the smaller details: in one scene, a town is considered by the general populace as ‘capable of holding a well-run event’, whilst its neighbour is regarded ‘as something of a joke town, barely able to keep a tavern in business’. Like many a serial – or sit-com – it gets funnier and more poignant the longer you stick with it, until you’re desperately fond of the whole business, while, at first, you wondered how the hell this got in The New Yorker. Drury’s wit is scathing, but also affectionate; even the mean drunks and petty criminals are bewildered softies here, and if that makes it sounds twee, well, it’s not – but you might have to read a good fifty pages before you’d be inclined to agree.
As for the Anderson/Faulkner comparisons: what similarities there are here seem kind of superficial to us. On the one hand, Anderson is name-checked, presumably, because the episodic nature of the text reminded somebody, somewhere, of Winesburg, Ohio, but whereas Anderson’s text is made up of a bunch of otherwise-independent short stories (a short story cycle), Drury’s is more like a regular novel – the chapters don’t necessarily follow straight on from one another in the sense of immediate plot progression, but they’re still fairly unified, at least compared to Anderson’s. On the other hand, both Anderson and Faulkner are most likely mentioned because each of them deals with a particular locale and community, as does Drury with Grouse County. Again, though, given that there’s nothing hugely analogous happening between Drury and Faulkner, outside a concern with a given place and its citizens, it seems a little gimmicky to push the point: Drury’s good, but he isn’t anything like Faulkner. What he is, is a sterling example of the kind of laconic minimalism that The New Yorker favours – if you want Absalom, Absalom!, you’re in the wrong place.
Any Cop?: We didn’t like it, and then we did, after all; it’s very funny in a quietly observational way. But it does meander and it doesn’t really transcend the serialised format, which means it’s a dawdling, almost old-fashioned novel, and won’t suit readers who like a little more dynamism in their texts.