"A Brontë for the '90s"
Tom Drury calls me from a pay phone outside Wrigley Field, about 15 minutes before game time. He and a friend are waiting for the friend of another friend to show up with their tickets. Drury's on a book tour for his second novel, The Black Brook. I've been trying to catch up with him for a week now, to tell him how much I loved his new book, how many passages of it I've been reading aloud to cornered friends, how many deadpan-quirky parts of it had me cocking my head like the locked-in-a-car dog in the first chapter, whose head is actually cocked so far it's upside down. It tells you a lot about the fictional world of Tom Drury that the dog's head is like that not because it's suffocating but because it's always like that. Who knows why? Just is. Whattaya want, a treatise on dog genetics or a good novel?
I tell Drury I loved the priceless ball game set piece in The Black Brook, a minor league game between the Ashland (Connecticut) Matches and the Roscoe (Ontario) Tigers, full of reckless base stealing and the possibility of hitting balls into a lake and a deeply funny exchange in which the novel's fallen-accountant hero tries to help three drunk teenagers fix the grammar but not the profanity of their ungrammatical and profane cheer: an exquisite fan's-eye view of watching a ball game that nobody but the players cares about.
"Hey," Drury says. "Tell 'em [meaning you, barnesandnoble.com visitors] about the time you threw that baseball that broke my finger," he says, "and I bled all over the place at the banquet."
"I'm sorry," I say.
"I'm over it," he says.
"I'm really sorry," I say.
"Well, you should be, I guess."
The incident happened three years ago, at the Wesleyan Writers Conference, which is where he and I met. In between classes and readings (and bourbon-soaked nights in the faculty hospitality suite with Richard Bausch, Henry Taylor, and Robert Stone), we stepped out one fine Connecticut afternoon to have a catch. An errant throw of mine somehow busted up the guy's finger, causing this future honoree as one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists to be a bloody mess during the final conference banquet and impeding his progress on The Black Brook -- at least insofar as he was temporarily without the use of the finger whose job it is to type the letters y, u, h, j, n, and m.
"Growing up where I grew up," says Drury, which is to say Mason City, Iowa, "you can't see any career path from high school to novelist."
Tom Drury's father worked for the Chicago Great Western Railroad, and his mother worked for People's Gas and Electric of Mason City -- which, in tandem, is so perfect I hardly know where to start. Straightforward and relentless movement mixed with different sorts of power. Brawny urbanity mixed with earnest Hawkeye-state charm. Real names that sound so perfectly midwestern one suspects they're made up, even though I'm sure they're not. Plains-flat details about Drury's past that for some reason make me grin, waiting for the joke these details set up, until I realize there is no joke -- and that, somehow, is the joke.
Drury attended the University of Iowa but wasn't affiliated with its famed writers' workshop. He definitely wanted someday to write fiction, but he enrolled in the journalism program. "I didn't have near enough distance on my own life to write fiction," Drury says. "Journalism seemed like a much more attainable goal."
He graduated and got a job at the Danbury (Connecticut) News-Times, his first in a series of newspaper jobs. "I was a swing reporter," he says, "covering odd stories here and there."
It's a job similar to the one Paul Emmons lands in The Black Brook. Emmons -- an accountant who worked for a minor mob figure, laundering money and arranging art forgery (a long, delightful story) -- is AWOL from the witness protection program: He's supposed to be in Spokane but instead runs a B&B in Belgium (you'd think this would be a long story, too, but it's not; it's just a semi-arbitrary decision he and his wife make) and not infrequently visits Connecticut, the scene of his crimes. Emmons leaves his wife (the cockeyed civility of this is masterfully portrayed), returns to Connecticut, and blunders into a swing-reporter job.
While The Black Brook isn't an autobiographical novel (quelle surprise!), Drury says, "It does draw on my experience as a journalist. The ridiculous randomness of the assignments," he adds, in which you can be covering the Royal Lipizzan Stallions one night and a highway fatality the next, "feeds the tempo of the book."
Drury's last newspaper job was at the Providence Journal-Bulletin. After a few years there, he applied to the graduate creative-writing program at Brown. One night when he was on the copy desk, Drury's wife called. The novelist John Hawkes had left a message. Drury had a place at Brown if he wanted it.
He wanted it. Soon after he finished the program there, he began -- under the tutelage of the late, legendary editor Veronica Geng -- publishing short stories in The New Yorker, stories that would be connected to make up his first novel, The End of Vandalism. The book centers on a love triangle in Grouse County, Iowa, involving the county sheriff, a sometime burglar who wrecks the community's "Dance Against Vandalism," and the burglar's wife, who, sensibly, falls for the sheriff. That doesn't tell the half of it; the genius of the book is equally Drury's Dickensian ability to create a memorable, believable minor character in a line or two.
For his next book, Drury says, "I didn't want to do 'Vandalism Rides Again.' I wanted to stretch."
Without sacrificing one of contemporary fiction's best deadpan deliveries, Drury's done just that. The first novel is set in one place and is very much about the permanence of place; the new one is set all over the place and is largely about temporality. The first was told from several points of view, the second from a single character's. Whereas the first is chronological, the second begins in the present, goes to the past, and maintains its felicitous zig-zagging thereafter.
The genesis of The Black Brook, Drury says, came from a letter a reader sent him after one of The New Yorker stories, comparing Drury favorably to other contemporary writers who are trying to "Brontë the '90s."
Drury had no idea what that was supposed to mean, especially in verb form. He'd never read the Brontës. Instead of taking the compliment at pokerface-value, he went on a reading jag: Emily's Wuthering Heights, Anne's Agnes Grey, and Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Villette. It was Villette that most influenced Drury, directly inspiring The Black Brook's Belgian setting (Drury had never been to Belgium) and the loopy chunks of untranslated French ("I just liked the way that looked," Drury says).
As he tells me this, I can hear the National Anthem playing. This is quite probably the first time Villette, often praised as British literature's best depiction of unrequited love from a woman's perspective, has been discussed by two men, one calling from a pay phone outside Wrigley Field, in the moments preceding a Cubs game.
"Are your tickets there yet?" I ask.
"Just got here," Drury says.
"Play ball," I say.
"We're just watching," Drury says.
"Watch ball," I say.