• Marginalia: Tom Drury

    Bethany Ball


    There’s a short book by Tom Drury I’ve obsessed over ever since my editor pressed it into my hand sometime around 2015. The Driftless Area is not as famous as The End of Vandalism, which was serialized in its entirety in the New Yorker, but it’s my favorite of Drury’s. To inhabit the world of The Driftless Area is to step into something gothic and a little noir yet grounded in the firm bedrock of Midwestern realism. A young man falls through the ice while skating deep in Iowan woods. If not for the mysterious woman watching him, he would drown, or die of exposure. From there, he’s drawn into a world of petty crime, an unsolved murder, revenge, and romance. There are magical elements too that are as real and solid as the novel’s physical particulars: a roadside tavern, a snow squall, the feel of the highway under a late-model car’s wheels. I read it once in a state of enchantment, trying to understand how Drury did what he did. I read it a second time and was sucked in again. 

    The third time around (and this was over several years as I stopped and started my own midwestern novel, set in Detroit, a book I described as dirtbag rust-belt gothic realist—in other words my citified version of The Driftless Area), I decided I’d log each scene of the book into my journal. I’d write down a sentence or two about each scene and then move to the next. I was like Hansel and Gretel laying down breadcrumbs. I filled my little leather notebook for pages and pages. My notes for the tenth scene read, “Falls through ice and is rescued.” Here’s the scene itself: 

    “Don’t get up,” said the woman. “Just roll away from the water. You want to keep your weight spread out.”

    Pierre did so. His boots that were still tied over his shoulder got in the way and he freed them and slid them away from him. Cold and exhausted, he nonetheless felt self-conscious to be slowly rolling across the lake. Then he got up, retrieved the boots, and walked to her on the blades of his skates.

    “Thank you,” he said. 

    “I was up on the hill and I saw you skating,” she said. 

    “Then there were some trees in the way, and I could see where you would come out, but you never did.”

    She began coiling the rope and Pierre looked at the stake, which was a length of rebar with a red epoxy coating.

    “Have you done this before?” he said.

    “No. But I’ve thought about how I would.”

    I love how she finds out he’s fallen through the ice. Plainspoken. No fifty-cent words here. The pragmatic common sense of her observation. But it’s subtle, like an ancient astrologer, borderline magic. The Iowan landscape informs the prose. It’s a landscape where you can watch a violent lightning storm and torrents of rain come down in gray sheets from miles away and never hear a sound. The importance of an act cannot be intuited by inflection. To read Drury is to surrender to a slower, quieter timeline. Things happen, big things with high stakes, but they will not happen loudly. If a murder is confessed, it will be whispered not shouted. These are the terms one must accept to enter Drury’s world.

    And then there’s an earlier scene which is maybe one of the most important in the novel. But in my notes, I had failed to catch the importance. In my journal I had written, “Scene Five: ‘Pierre wanders where he meets a man’”:

    When Pierre was out of sight, the old man got up and walked across the park to the street where his car was parked. His name was Tim Greer. He drove north out of Desmond City and up through Shale to a house on the bluff above the lake. He got out of the car and knocked on the door, where he was met by a young woman in faded jeans, red socks, and a black felt shirt.

    “He made it,” said Tim. “Showed up at midnight.”

    Drury had set the clock in motion, and yet I had missed it the first reading. It was a non sequitur of sorts, and my brain only halfway filed it until I’d finished the book for the second time. The breadcrumb of that moment, reminding me where I’d been and the significance. Of course: this is the woman who will go on to save Pierre in the tenth scene I’d recorded above, but when I’d written down the fifth scene, I’d failed to put those moments together. This move on Drury’s part is fine, of course, because for most of my life I’ve read books as a reader longing for magic and not at all interested in knowing much less understanding how the sausage is made.    

    One teacher of mine, David Hollander, has said that structure and elements of fiction are meant to be stolen, while another teacher, Gordon Lish, said it was derivative to do so. I fall somewhere in the middle. In addition to my rereadings, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Drury’s novel at least two times (and have listened to several more including his better known The End of Vandalism and lesser known Pacific. I even recommend watching the sweet film adaptation by Zachary Sluser, which he cowrote with Drury. But The Driftless Area is the novel of Drury’s I like the best. His only book with magical, mystical element, a book that reminds me that in spite of the quiet, the flatness, the overlooked nature of what coastal folks call “flyover states,” the midwestern landscape, the rust belt, the bread basket of the country is a place of fantastical qualities and fascinating characters that rival any in modern American literature. If I’m ever able to sneak some spectral elements or preternatural phenomenon—something I’ve not been able to do successfully—it will be because of Drury’s influence and inspiration.

    Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and lives in New York. She has published two novels, The Pessimists and What to Do About the Solomons, with Grove Atlantic.

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