Reviewed by Annabel
Tom Drury is the author of a trio of exquisite observational dramas following the everyday life of the inhabitants of Grouse County, Iowa, a location which epitomises small town America. He was picked as one of Granta’s Best Young American novelists in 1996, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of him. Twenty-one years after his debut, Old Street Publishing have brought his novels back into print.
I happened to already own a copy of The End of Vandalism, which has been languishing on my shelves for the full twenty-one years! Why it got forgotten, I have no idea, but seeing a bit of buzz around the author’s name due to these reprints, I dug it out. I now want to read the others, it was that good!
The story centres around three characters whom we meet on the first page and follow over several years.
Sheriff Dan Norman is helping out at the blood drive when Louise Darling comes in with her husband Tiny Darling. Dan knows that Tiny is a small-time crook, but has no proof. A few days later, Tiny gets into a fight and Dan puts him into the lock-up and then drives out to the Klar Farmhouse to tell Louise:
“Tiny got in a fight with Bob Becker at the Lime Bucket,” said Dan. “Tiny’s fine, but he’s drunk, so I took him to the Morrisville jail for overnight.”
“He’s not hurt,” said Louise.
“No,” said Dan. “As I say, he won the fight.”
“What’s he charged with?” said Louise.
“I’m not bringing anything,” said Dan. “I wash my hands of it. What are you watching?”
“What does that mean,” said Louise, “if you wash your hands?”
Dan stared at the TV. “He’ll be let go in the morning,” he said. “At eight o’clock in the morning they’ll let him go when they go off their shift.”
Louise went and drank something amber from a small glass. “God damn it,” she said. “Why can’t people leave Tiny alone?”
Dan sat down on the arm of a chair. “Louise,” he said, “In all fairness, people might ask the same of Tiny. He can be pretty obnoxious.”
Some months later, Dan encounters Louise again while investigating a series of thefts. He finds out that she and Tiny have separated. Over the coming months Dan and Louise will bump into each other frequently, before realising that they want to be together, holding hands at the High School ‘End of Vandalism’ Dance becoming the first inkling of what’s to come…
In the meanwhile, Louise has her difficult mother to deal with and Dan has his police work. Including finding the mother of an abandoned baby – the note pinned to him says “My name Is ‘Quinn’. Please look out for me.” It shows the kind of good man that Dan is, for when he works out who Quinn’s mother is, he doesn’t go through with arresting her, for she has mental health problems – and exposure as his mother with the inevitable publicity will likely break her. Meanwhile Tiny is off on his travels, he’s going to try his luck in Colorado for a while. He will return later.
Grouse County has a mixture of blacktop and gravel roads connecting its small towns, each with its distinct character. Some are more prosperous than others, others are failing, but there appears to be little rivalry between them. Grouse County inhabitants are used to going all over their county to get things done, as Dan and his two colleagues do every day. There is a lot of room around everything here, it’s all very spaced out and people have to make an effort to interact sometimes.
We get to meet a large number of the inhabitants. Indeed, a list of them all appears at the end of the book! Some of the most fascinating include: Joan Gower, who is listed as a ‘proselyte’ – I imagined a young Dot Cotton (from Eastenders); Perry Kleeborg the octogenarian photographer who is Louise’s boss; and the Robeshaws – farmers, whose son Albert falls for Liu Chiang, a Taiwanese student who’s overrun her visa.
The one who will have most to bear on Dan’s life though is Jonny White. We’re introduced to him as the organiser of a sort of twelve-step programme for drug-addicts, and when Tiny returns to Grouse County, he links up with Johnny and helps him when he runs as a candidate for the Sheriff’s election. There is a real sense that Dan could lose this time around.
All is not plain-sailing for Dan and Louise’s relationship either. As the novel moves on, they will face many trials and tribulations in their life together. There was a wonderful scene when Tiny, newly back in town, drives up to the farmhouse finding no-one at home and has a nap on their bed – he doesn’t get caught, but it leaves you wondering.
If you’re a fan of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories, you’ll find some similarities here, although Drury has a little more edge. Like Keillor’s, Drury’s prose is gentle and humorous, full of touching moments too but, when necessary, Drury’s features darker times. The novel is driven by the conversations between the characters, finding its drama there rather than in action. The dialogue, coupled with deadpan observational detail draws you into the world of Grouse County.
I hope that with these reprints Drury will gain many new fans. I’m definitely one of them, although it took me twenty-one years to realise it.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Tom Drury, The End of Vandalism (Old Street: London, 2015). 978-1910400296, , 400 pp., paperback.
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