Rough Old World: Tom Drury’s "Pacific"

August 31, 2013   •   By Leland de la Durantaye


Tom Drury

MIDWAY THROUGH Tom Drury’s recent novel Pacific, teenage Micah and Charlotte are wandering alongside a river in Los Angeles. An elderly man pushing a cart full of bottles stops to inform them that he has beautiful handwriting. To demonstrate this he produces a scrap of newspaper on which he writes — in what is, in fact, beautiful handwriting — “Charlotte and Micah fix their gaze upon the youthful river.” That night, Micah, “too fresh from dreams not to say what he meant,” tells Charlotte, who is trouble, that he loves her. Her only reply is: “Charlotte and Micah fix their gaze upon the youthful river.” This could be her way of saying I love you too, or that I love you not, or something else entirely.

Pacific continues a story, or set of stories, that began with The End of Vandalism (1994) and continued in Hunts in Dreams (2000). (Drury’s other two novels, The Black Brook [1998] and The Driftless Area [2006], are worlds unto themselves.) The first two novels in the series took place entirely in the fictional Grouse County (think Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, only Midwestern, pronounceable, and, well, also without the racism, Reconstruction, and incest). In this third installment, Pacific, the scene is split between Grouse County and Los Angeles. This is a radical shift, in more respects than one. Grouse County is small (and imaginary), Los Angeles large (and real). The Los Angeles to which Micah’s mother has brought him is bright, guilty, and glamorous (teenagers own horses, party wildly, receive minimal parenting). And yet it is as lightly sketched as the places of Grouse County, and all of the places of Drury’s writing.

Of Pacific’s opening scene, for instance, we know only that there is a porch, train tracks, and a sunset. We may know, or feel we know, what such things look like, but we are not given any great detail: “Tiny and Micah sat on the back porch of the house where they lived outside the town of Boris, watching the sun go down behind the train tracks and the trees.” We don’t know how old Micah or his father Tiny are, or what they look like, or what they are wearing. They have a fundamentally silly conversation about fighting (which later proves, however, quite useful), and through it we see just how they feel about one another, all the tenderness, worry, and love they awkwardly — and funnily — feel. And they are not alone. For most of the characters in Drury’s novels, we do not know height or weight, hair or eye color (Louise, a redhead, is a notable exception), nor do we generally know states of mind and heart beyond those expressed in the character’s own words. And yet they are intensely real and rich and rounded presences, and — in the case of those from the earlier two novels — it is nice to see them again.

The pleasure in Pacific, as in its predecessors, is not particularly plot-based. It is, instead, in the people and places themselves. And yet they do trace arcs of incident and intrigue. In Pacific, as in The End of Vandalism, there are crimes which are being investigated, and which are not that big of a deal. They don’t feel like artificial drivers of the plot; it is just that they are there without being of burning importance. There is a semi-supernatural element — not for the first time in Drury’s fiction — which merges with the crime and punishment plot. There a subplot about (and a wonderful epigraph from) the Mabinogion (a medieval Celtic collection of stories) about which there is not much to say — and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Early on in Pacific we learn that “the table had fallen apart in the living room. It was not bearing any unusual weight and neither Dan nor Louise was nearby when it fell. Just the table’s time, apparently.” What is true of the table is true of its world. When things happen — whether the potential rediscovery of the magical stone “thrown by Cuchulainn to keep Conall’s chariot from following him to Loch Echtra,” or the end of a piece of furniture’s life — it is just that thing’s time, apparently. There is much we don’t know, won’t know, can’t know.

At a low point in The End of Vandalism, Tiny is approached in a bar by a stranger who works in the self-help industry. The stranger says he will begin sentences and that Tiny is to end them. “If there was one thing I could change about myself —” says the self-helper, to which Tiny replies “I would go ahead and do it.” When prompted, “I wish I were an eagle, with—,” Tiny answers, “Deadly claws.”  And to “I don’t consider myself a loser, and yet—,” he responds “I have lost things.” Things in Drury’s novels are lost and sought and sometimes found, and sometimes lost again. It is a lot like life.

In the past Drury has chosen allusive, gently cryptic titles. The Black Brook takes its title from a John Singer Sargent painting featured therein. Hunts in Dreams is from Tennyson. The Driftless Area is a geological term for a significant part of the Midwest. By contrast, the title of Drury’s latest novel seems easy enough to understand: several of the characters from the earlier books have moved to the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The novel, however, is not called The Pacific Ocean, or Southland, or The End of Horseback Riding. The reason for this, besides the fact that those would be terrible titles, is that the novel is pacific in another sense than the merely geographic. Notwithstanding a bar fight, a sword fight, a trucker-organized beating, and, actually, a more than incidental amount of violence, its world is peaceful. People fight in Pacific, as they did in its predecessors. But it is not the bright flash of danger, the sharp taste of blood, the grace or awkwardness under pressure that will define one man among others and give him the virility he needs. It is all somehow nontraumatic. Tiny is badly beaten (he has it coming) in Pacific, but it happens offstage, we are exposed to it after the fact. It isn’t the ringing plains of windy Troy; everything will be fine.

Early on in The End of Vandalism, a man named Dan is up on his roof trying to decide whether “Joan Gower was trouble or just overly dedicated to whatever it was she believed in.” Dan is the county sheriff, and duty calls before he can come to a conclusion; she is, in fact, both. While Dan is responding to a report of an abandoned baby, we are told:

He didn’t have any beliefs to speak of. A world that would deposit a child in a beer carton in the middle of nowhere seemed capable of you-name-it, but Dan did not think that you-name-it qualified as a belief.

“You-name-it” does not indeed easily qualify as a belief (except, of course, the belief that no system or set of doctrines could ever circumscribe the world’s strangeness), but it is the way in which Drury’s characters approach and accept the you-name-it–ness of the world that gives them their peace. We dream of an end of vandalism, we hunt in dreams along a black brook towards a driftless area that is truly pacific. And we live in this world, where you just really never know what might come next: an abandoned baby or a loving gaze alongside a youthful river.

At one point in Pacific, Louise, who has lost a child, sees Micah’s older sister Lyris, who is crying for no known reason. She holds her, saying, “Rough old world. I know it.” Lyris feels bad for getting Louise’s shirt wet with tears. Louise responds that, “It’s only a thing,” and clearly means it. It is a rough old world in which you-name-it happens. There are combative strains in it, from the swordplay of the Mabinogion to bar fights in Los Angeles. And there is a warmth that radiates through it all. Many in Pacific make mistakes, many lose things they think they could never stand to lose, and yet on they go in the rough old world, and you with them, peaceful at heart. 


Leland de la Durantaye is a professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.