Tom Drury’s Grouse County books to get official UK release at long last
“If you become a creative writer with the idea I am going to make a whole lot of money, then maybe this isn’t the best choice for you. I don’t really think in terms of making something that is going to be bought everywhere because I don’t read those things. My writing is a process in which I try my best to make good sentences and a sequence of events that is compelling and believable.”
There are several clichés that could be applied to Tom Drury: the best novelist you have never heard of; a writers’ writer; the next Richard Yates, John “Stoner” Williams, Robert Coover [insert name of neglected American author here].
The cliché about clichés is the way they nod towards truth. And so it is with Drury. In 1994, he published his first book The End of Vandalism. Having been serialised by The New Yorker, it seemed destined to establish its creator at the forefront of an extraordinary new generation of writers including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers.
Drury certainly won critical laurels. GQ named his debut one of the best 50 novels of the last 50 years. Franzen himself calls Drury as a “big-time American talent”.
Franzen’s own Iowan masterpiece, The Corrections, would be feted internationally, but the big-time has remained stubbornly out of Drury’s reach. The 58-year-old’s limited commercial success has meant regular day-jobs in journalism and academia. After 2006’s The Driftless Area, he edited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s website. “That has sort of broken up the solitude a bit,” he explains. “And it’s of necessity. I like the writing life, but it’s not something that always makes enough money.” The situation in the United Kingdom is even less promising. Only one of his five novels – The End of Vandalism – has been published there and that went out of print long before e-books were a twinkle in Amazon’s eye.
Drury’s fortunes may be about to change. The astute independent publisher Old Street Press is releasing the first two “Grouse County” books over the coming months: the extraordinary The End of Vandalism and its sequel Hunts in Dreams, which are both set in a vividly reimagined Iowa. His reputation will be further augmented by a movie of his fourth novel The Driftless Area, whose cast includes Zooey Deschanel and Ciaran Hinds.
In other words, 2015 may at long last be Tom Drury’s year. “Awesome,” he says laconically. “If you stay around long enough then one is constantly discovered. For 20 years, people have been discovering The End of Vandalism. Whatever readership you are going to find, you begin to find it.” This slow-burn towards success has something distinctly Druryan – or is that Druryesque? – about it.
Set in the same small Iowa towns in which he grew up, The End of Vandalism doesn’t so much thrust as insinuate its greatness upon you. “There is some question like, Why is this bucket in the yard and who does it belong to?” as Drury himself puts it. “There are lots of references to dowel rod. Rural places tend to have a lot of lumber lying around, and dowel rod has always struck me as kind of humorous.”
Drury’s quietly epic fiction is populated by sheriffs, farmers, drifters and eccentric retirees who encounter small-bore trouble at blood drives, local elections and town meetings. At its heart is the funny and heartbreaking relationship between Dan Norman and Louise Darling, who settle down, try to start a family and try with each seemingly undramatic day of their lives to find their place in the world. “Rather than writing about international events, I try to write about individual lives. There is elation and sadness, death and birth, love and jealousy, cooperation and betrayal. All the great emotional transactions that happen wherever people come together.”
Drury is in Europe courtesy of Berlin’s American Academy, where he is a writing Fellow until May. In London to launch the new edition of The End of Vandalism, he admits to finding the limelight a little too bright. “I am not a natural performer. I am trying to get better with interviews and readings and things. I feel like I should be able to do that. It is only natural that someone who works alone in a room all the time listening to imaginary voices would be able to get up and be entertaining in front of a crowd.”
Dressed in a pair of jeans and a baseball shirt, he has the air of someone returned from a game of catch in the park. His soft drawl meanders through sentences that unfurl with the desultory grace of his early prose. “If all the scenes of your life were visuals on a piece of glass and the glass broke and the pieces fell on the ground and you said, this looks good next to that – that’s what writing fiction is about to me. It is a mosaic of things you have seen or heard or simply dreamed up. I tend to trust those things which are anchored in my memory, which have been there for a long time.”
The most stubborn anchor in Drury’s creative memory is his upbringing in rural Iowa. Born in 1956, he grew up in Swaledale – population 220. “I remember an absence of people my age in the town. Until you could drive, you were limited to what you could do with siblings. Riding bikes, playing in the yard. Some sports, but not a great deal. Some kids got to go to the next town and swim in the swimming pool, and some didn’t. People would go away to have fun and you were left to find ways to keep busy.”
Isolation, a mainstay of Drury’s fiction, was a fact of life in Swaledale. “Practically everything lay outside my experience,” he says, doing a fine impression of one of his characters. “You end up looking at the sky an awful lot because the sky is very big. Sometimes it would be amazing as a graphic feature of the environment. Particularly so at night when the stars are out. I think we could even see satellites. That was another visual sign of a larger world and different lives than we were leading.”
Culture was the first means of accessing this larger world. Drury loved Roxy Music’s Song for Europe because it made him think: “I bet Europe is fantastic, dramatic and brooding.” It was literature, however, that would change and shape his life. He grows positively misty-eyed at a memory of the roving Bookmobile. “Here’s the government, which you really didn’t see much in any form, saying books are so important we are going to send a truck full of them so people can look at them. I loved the Bookmobile. It’s how I read my first Raymond Carver short story when I was 13 or 14 years old.”
Drury left to study journalism at the University of Iowa, and later worked for papers on both coasts of the United States. In leaving, he participated in the very erosion of Iowan small towns that he would portray in The End of Vandalism.
During his childhood, Swaledale had “a gas station, hair salon, grocery, grain elevator, hardware store, two taverns, three churches, eventually a library. Now [there’s] an auto mechanic, the old hardware store is used to store doors, a church and the library.”
This exodus is glimpsed in the novel but rarely analysed. In person, Drury is reluctant to expand on this nuanced portrait. “It’s hard for me to speak about what’s going on sociologically because I really don’t know. The fewer farms there are, the fewer people there are to buy stuff. People tend to go into the larger places and the small places tend to go away.”
He is no more voluble when the conversation turns to national and international events. “I really don’t like to get into politics,” he sighs. “Like most people I was optimistic when Obama got elected. I continued to be optimistic when he got re-elected, just because of what the alternative would have been.
“Our politics basically prove that the whole thing can grind to a halt. We are always flirting with shutdowns. It’s just antithetical to the idea of sending out the Bookmobile in 1967.”
This elegiac tone, which resounds throughout his fiction, suggests an underlying disenchantment with modern American life. Drury is the sort who prefers vinyl records to downloads, face-to-face talk to social networking, 60s idealism, no matter how illusory, to knowing 21st-century cool.
“I feel there’s this sense that what is left in 100 years is not too important and the main thing is to get what you can right now. Sometimes I feel like the need for immediate profit will jeopardise [a town’s] continued existence. The idea of doing good things for people has been devalued. Even to put that forward as a goal is no longer as popular as it used to be.”
It is noticeable that Drury has chosen to leave his de facto home in Brooklyn and return to Iowa, settling in Mason City, the nearest metropolis to Swaledale. “I didn’t live there very long before I came to Berlin. I did know this – I wanted to be near my family. I still have some friends there.” Tempting as it is to wax lyrical about symbolic full circles, Drury’s pragmatism won’t allow them to spin for long. Mason City’s low rents were an added incentive.
Whether his homecoming will alter Grouse County remains to be seen. His next novel tackles the Faust myth. It crosses my mind that the sudden upswing in his fortunes could be the result of some diabolical pact.
“I don’t know,” he says wearily and a little warily when I ask again if 2015 is his year. “You just make the art you can make. You make the best use of your skills and your imagination. I really am trying to do the best job that I can. I am not thinking about sales. I would like to have enough recognition to work, but beyond that …”
Modest desires for an unassuming devil. I doubt Tom Drury would have it any other way.
James Kidd is a freelance reviewer based in London.
Updated: April 2, 2015 04:00 AM