The Black Brook

The Black Brook

by Tom Drury


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An utterly original and compelling novel from “one of our living masters (McSweeney’s), originally published in 1998 and now re-issued by Grove with a new introduction—a conversation between the author and Daniel Handler.

Paul Emmons has his faults—envy, lust, naiveté, money laundering, and art forgery to name but a few. A fallen accountant and scamster, Emmons and wife Mary are exiled abroad, though they enjoy frequent and inadvisable returns to New England, the region of his crimes, to check in on the property they own but cannot claim.

With this, the stage is set for Drury's darkly comic novel of love, death, guilt, redemption, and the various forms of clam chowder. Through a series of flashbacks and bizarre encounters, we see Paul's life as a college student in Quebec; his unfortunate professional beginnings in Rhode Island as business associate of Carlo Record, the one-armed president of the fraudulent company "New England Amusements"; and his stint as an investigative journalist.

As time passes, Paul is tracked down by Carlo's cronies—Ashtray Bob, Line-Item Vito, and Hatpin Henry—who try to coerce Paul into stealing the infamous John Singer Sargant painting "The Black Brook" from the Tate gallery in London. Instead, Paul begs Mary, a painter, to reproduce the Sargant, in an attempt to outwit Carlo and his henchmen; a plot that produces comic consequences.

Through it all Paul strives to find and accomplish his mission in life, and myriad characters contrive to tell their stories—of broken promises, nightmarish evenings, and identities lost and found in this "irresistibly droll portrayal of an All-American liar, loser, and innocent" (Kirkus).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802123060
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tom Drury is the author of Pacific, longlisted for the National Book Award; The End of Vandalism; Hunts in Dreams; and The Driftless Area. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Mississippi Review, and he has been named one of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists.”

Read an Excerpt


It was a hot dry dusty summer day in New Hampshire. Mary and Paul Emmons had just taken a booth in a diner called Happy's when Mary noticed a dog in a car in the parking lot with its head turned upside down.

"What's the matter with that dog?" she said.

"Where?" said Paul.

Mary touched the screen. Rust flakes fell to the windowsill. "Down there."

"I don't see it."

"I don't think it has enough air to breathe."

"I don't see a dog."

Paul and Mary were natives of the United States who had lived in Belgium for the past six years. Before that, they had owned a house in Providence, where Paul had been an accountant. Then he came under indictment and eventually testified in a well-publicized criminal trial, for which the federal government gave him a new identity.

When the trial was over, Mary and Paul moved to Spokane. But they did not like Spokane, things did not work out so well for them there, and after seven months in Spokane they got on a plane and flew to Belgium, where Mary had relatives whom she had visited during her childhood summers.

Mary and Paul ended up living and working in a modest hotel in the Ardennes. Mary managed the inn and Paul kept the books, and between them they had to perform every sort of hotel duty except fixing the electrical wiring. It felt like, and was, a life in exile. Paul had more guilty knowledge than Mary, but Mary had some too. She was not a CPA but she understood numbers.

They had been warned never to come back to New England, but this was the third time they had done so. The urge to return is great among protected witnesses, and the more Paul and Mary came back, the less threatened they felt. They drove past their old house in rented cars with their arms resting in open windows. It was a shame how the place had fallen apart, with tall scorched grass and sagging gutters. They visited Paul's family down in South County, neither making a show of their presence nor trying to hide. In movies it may seem that gangsters have nothing better to do all day than hunt down and shoot turncoat accountants, but in the Emmonses' experience the opposite was true.

During these rare visits to the States, however, Paul and Mary found it difficult to get along with Paul's family. His mother and father, and especially his aunts and uncles and cousins, seemed both jealous of Mary's Belgian relatives and hostile to Mary and Paul themselves. The truth is Paul's family had never been that wild about Mary, who even before her banishment among French speakers would lapse into French for no particular reason. And Paul had thrown a cloud over the family, first by conspiring to racketeer and then by informing on people who had once considered him, if not their friend, at least their associate.

After a week of visiting Paul's relatives in Rhode Island, Mary and Paul were always more than ready to drive up to New Hampshire, where they owned thirty-nine acres of maples and meadows and evergreens, not far from Carr Mountain and the Polar Caves.

A waitress in red shorts and a white sweatshirt brought laminated menus that felt sharp enough to cut paper, Paul and Mary ordered, and as the waitress walked away they could see the small flags of many nations printed on the back of her sweatshirt.

Mary pressed her light thick hair back along the sides of her head, her eyes widened, and she stabbed Paul's hand with the prong of a barrette. "There that dog is," she said. "Look now. You can only see him when he's on this side of the car."

Paul looked. He saw a tan dog whose neck was twisted so that the bottom of the jaw pointed almost straight up. The dog seemed to be staggering in circles. It would climb onto the passenger seat again and again, only to stumble down onto the floorboard each time.

"He doesn't look very good," Paul conceded.

"He must be suffocating."

"Hard to say from this angle, Mary."

By the time the waitress in the flag sweatshirt brought food to the booth, other patrons had gathered at the windows, making the dog's predicament harder for Paul to dismiss. A thin man in a black baseball hat spoke up loudly to ask if the driver of the car — a gray Audi with a Princeton sticker in the back window — was in the diner. No answer.

"Some people," said a redhead who held a pack of cigarettes in one hand and a lighter in the other. "You don't leave a dog with the windows rolled up in heat like this."

"It's not right," agreed an old man whom some of the others had called Judge, although he did not necessarily look like a member of the judiciary.

"And they're from Princeton," said the man in the black hat. "You'd think they would know better."

"They have education, all right, but no common sense," said the woman who gripped her smoking materials like pistols.

"You know it, Bonnie," said the old man. "Some people have learned too much."

Mary put her fork down. "I'm not eating."

"Maybe it's unlocked," said Paul.

They walked out of the diner and down a flight of cement stairs to the gravel lot. Sun glinted on the closed windows of the Audi. They tried the handles but there was not even a click that would have suggested engagement with some opening mechanism.

The car had been washed not long ago, and its gleaming charcoal surface, dusted with fine sand, seemed especially closed to Paul and Mary. They stood watching the dog, who climbed and fell, climbed and fell, and whose left ear, they could now see, was turned inside out.

Paul said that the dog almost seemed drunk.

"Of course he seems drunk," said Mary. "Because what does liquor do? It cuts the flow of oxygen to the brain. He can't breathe. He can't breathe and now he's going to die."

"Wouldn't he just pass out?"

"He will if we stand here long enough," said Mary. "He'll pass out and then die."

Paul put his hands on his knees and made eye contact with the dog. It seemed like the usual dog, dealing with enclosure through meaningless repetitive motion, except that its head and ear were very strange. "There must be a tire iron in our car. That's what we're talking about, isn't it? Something heavy."

Mary ran off, her yellow dress swaying in the wavering heat. When she returned she carried a cruciform lug wrench that she handed to Paul. He hefted the wrench in his right hand and scanned the smooth curving glass. What would a sensible person do? A swing of the tire iron would either save the dog's life or simply break the window of an expensive car with a grotesque dog inside. Perhaps the dog had rabies and would jump out and bite them. Then they would have to get all those shots in the stomach, if that was still the treatment for rabies. Perhaps bits of glass would fly into the dog's eyes, adding blindness to its many other problems.

Mary tapped the glass, chewed her fingernail, placed her hands on her hips. "Vogue la galere," she said.

"What if the dog has rabies?" said Paul.

"I can't see driving around casually with a rabid dog."

"All right. Probably they wouldn't," said Paul.

Just then a short stout man with a long white apron and a gray goatee came running down the stairs. "Wait," he said. "I'm Happy."

"Excuse me?" said Paul.

"They call me Happy. I run the diner."

"Oh, I got you."

"I have an idea where you can find the owners," said Happy. "They're probably down the street at L'Embarras du Choix. That's another restaurant — they serve French food — and their customers are not supposed to use this parking lot, but a lot of times they do anyway."

Happy's words made Paul happy, though he understood how keenly Mary had wanted to hear and see that breaking glass.

"Hurry," she said. "There isn't much time."

Paul loped down the street of the New Hampshire town, past young trees with broken branches, past a newspaper store with model airplanes in the window, past a souvenir shop called Not Just Unicorns. A brass plate bore the name of the French restaurant. Paul stood before two wooden doors with opaque windows, of frosted glass. He wiped the sweat from his eyes. He did not want to go in, because he knew what he would find: people with money. He had tried once upon a time to get money himself and instead had been relegated to a tumbledown inn in Belgium. Not long before this trip, in fact, he had experienced a strange moment of self-awareness at the inn. He had been pouring liquid drain opener into a sink, scratching his stomach and looking absently out at cows standing in the Ardennes rain. Suddenly he had the notion that he had been doing these things forever — pouring, scratching, looking — and that in arriving at this moment he had come at last to his essence. And now, on the verge of entering the restaurant, he felt as if the customers, when their heads turned in his direction, would not see a hero trying to save the life of a dog but someone frozen ludicrously in time with a bottle of drain opener in his hand.

Nonetheless, in he went. Cool air brushed his ears, brown velvet covered round tables, diners huddled over pale glasses, and candles burned with steady light.

"I'm very sorry," said a waiter, "but you can't come in here wearing tennis shoes."

"Won't be long," said Paul, moving to the center of the restaurant. "Excuse me, folks. There's an Audi parked down the street with Maryland plates and a dog inside. I need to find the owner."

Nothing happened at first. Then a man stood slowly at one of the tables. He wore a canvas jacket with a green suede patch on one shoulder and an expression of infinite patience. "I have an Audi, and I have a dog."

"It seems to be running out of air," said Paul.

"Yes," said the man. "That's what he's like."

"His head is upside down."

"Rusty has a problem with his head," said the man. "What of it?" He laughed quietly. A woman sitting at his table took a drink of wine and gazed mildly around the room. Now Paul heard condescending laughter from other tables as well. It was the very sort of class antagonism that he had anticipated.

"Well, I wouldn't presume to tell you about your own dog," said Paul. "But I can tell you this — there's a mob of people about to knock the windows out of your car."

The man extended his hand and introduced himself as Raymond Scovill, as if Paul had, through his persistence, passed some kind of test. They left the restaurant together and walked to the diner called Happy's. The sun beat down, but Raymond Scovill stopped to light a pipe and in general could not be hurried. Perhaps by now Mary had broken the window and discovered that the dog was not suffering from oxygen deprivation after all. Paul hoped the window was intact. He hoped that someone cautious had taken charge of the tire iron. He wondered what it would cost to replace the window and clean thousands of slivers of safety glass from the interior. Perhaps a special high-powered vacuum cleaner would be required.

"I don't mind explaining," said Raymund. "And it's a good thing, I expect, that people are concerned. But I can tell you, the dog is fine."

"You've got to leave some ventilation."

Raymond nodded with a mouthful of smoke. The pipe bobbed up and down. "No, you're right of course. But it's not as if the car is airtight. I drive around with the windows closed, and I seem to get along all right."

"It's different when the car is moving,"

Raymond shrugged. "Point taken."

"What is wrong with the dog?"

"It's a condition of the inner ear. We believe there was an infection that went unchecked when he was a pup. It's a long story. We picked Rusty up at an animal shelter in Bethesda some years ago. He had arrived at the shelter in much the same shape as you see him in today. Smaller, of course, but functionally the same. The funny thing is that Rusty enjoys traveling. Although I admit he can be disturbing to watch. It's a problem for us. Many people want to know what's wrong, what's wrong with Rusty."

Crossing the parking lot of the diner with Raymond Scovill, Paul remembered walking up the courthouse steps with his lawyer back in 1991. Paul's lawyer wore a stiff blue suit with the jacket unbuttoned so that the sides opened like a cabinet, and he carried a briefcase as big as a suitcase. By that time Paul was so familiar with federal agents and their bad jokes that he had welcomed the uncertain prospect of beginning again, with a new name and no friends. The future lay open for him and Mary, as it had on their honeymoon. He held this thought in his mind all during testimony, and no one understood how he could rat on the other conspirators with such an untroubled face.

A dozen people had gathered in the parking lot to argue the merits of assaulting the car in order to save the dog. Calm now in her yellow summer dress, Mary seemed the still center of the commotion. Paul took her hand as Raymond made his way to the car. Everyone understood who he was, and a murmur of anticipation washed over the crowd. Raymond removed his jacket, took the keys from the pocket, folded the jacket inside out, and laid it carefully over the hood of the car. Then he opened the door, leashed Rusty, and led him down onto the pavement — all while continuing to smoke his pipe.

"So you see, he is all right," said Raymond. "Aren't you, Rusty? Rusty had the people worried for nothing."

The dog was friendly enough, and his deformities and falling seemed less grotesque when they were known not to be life-threatening. Yet the people were not satisfied. It was the wrong outcome. They almost wanted to go ahead and break the car windows anyway. The old man called Judge led the group into the diner, but he turned at the top of the stairs.

"Maybe there's no harm this time, but I tell you that it isn't right," he said.

Raymond Scovill walked Rusty aimlessly around the parking lot, opened a window an inch or two, and shut the dog inside again. His hand brushed the metal contours of the car.

"There's so much dust in the air," he said. "I washed the car yesterday, and while it appears to be dean, if you look closely, you'll see that the entire surface is coated with dust."

Paul and Mary drove away from the diner as Raymond crossed the street on his way back to L'Embarras du Choix. He gestured with the pipe, as if writing words in the air. They waved in return and headed for the motel where they were staying.

"How do you feel?" said Paul.

"Hungry," said Mary. "Hungry and tired."

They took showers and fell asleep with wet hair on a hard flat bed in a room with varnished wooden walls and a painting of a woman holding a bushel basket of cherries.

Between legal fees and fines, the trial had cost Paul and Mary their savings, their car, and the house in Providence. The land in New Hampshire was all they had managed to keep. The title had been transferred to Paul's cousin Lane, who had committed suicide some years before by jumping from a bridge in California. He'd been jilted by someone. If this ghost transfer were ever found out — which it wouldn't be, thanks to the skillful way in which Paul had set it up and the laissez-faire attitude of the town clerk involved — they could lose the thirty-nine acres too. So they had the land but couldn't do much with it, just show up once every couple of years, get a motel room nearby, and wander through the trees and grass for a few days before flying back to Brussels.

Paul and Mary woke up and went for a drive as the sun lowered in the sky. They picked up hummus sandwiches and beers on the way out of town and ate hungrily and silently in the car with the crumbs falling in their laps. A quarter mile past an auction house where they had never seen anyone, let alone an auction, they turned onto a sand road that climbed through dark dense evergreens into the hills.

Blue shade covered the crest of the road. Paul pulled the car off in soft grass and they stepped out onto their land. A trail wound through evenly spaced trees, and after some distance the trees gave way to a high golden meadow from which mountains could be seen, miles away.

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