Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Driftless Area

A Novel

by Tom Drury

“Drury ties up all the threads (Shane, the fire, Stella) with consummate skill. . . . The bittersweet ending is a perfect mix of light and dark. Drury is a master at showing extraordinary things happening to ordinary people—and it’s always a fun ride.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date August 21, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4304-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

The new novel from the award-winning author of The End of Vandalism is a wry and sophisticated heist drama in which an unlikely hero finds himself in possession of a stolen bundle of money and tries to give it away.

Set in the rugged region of the Midwest that gives the novel its title, The Driftless Area is the story of Pierre Hunter, a young bartender with unfailing optimism, a fondness for coin tricks, and an uncanny capacity for finding trouble: When his girlfriend gets pneumonia, Pierre is banished from the hospital. When he goes skating on the lake, he finds the lone stretch of bad ice. And when he falls in love, with the mysterious and isolated Stella Rosmarin, Pierre becomes the central player in a revenge drama he must unravel and bring to its shocking conclusion. Along the way he will liberate $77,000 from a murderous thief, summon the resources that have eluded him all his life, and come to question the very meaning of chance and mortality. For nothing is as it seems in The Driftless Area. Identities shift, violent secrets lie in wait, the future can cause the past, and love becomes a mission that can take you beyond this world. In its tender, cool irony, The Driftless Area recalls the best of neonoir, and its cast of bona fide small-town eccentrics adrift in the American Midwest make for a clever and deeply pleasurable read from one of our most beloved authors.

Tags Literary


“Equal parts heist caper, ghost story and romance . . . in prose that is spare and sly.” —Amy Virshup, The New York Times

“Drury is nothing less than a wizard. . . . Not since Twin Peaks has he rural surreal had such an artful airing.” —Amanda Heller, The Boston Globe

“With deceptively simple prose, Drury is able to evoke characters and scenes in just a few brush strokes . . . It’s a murder mystery, a revenge drama, a comedy and a love story. . . . Drury does indeed bend one genre around another, and in doing so he’s come up with a region entirely his own.” —J.D. Dolan, Los Angeles Times

“Drury, like a master magician, seems confident and patient in what he has in store to mesmerize his audience. . . . [His] language is superb. . . . His many dialogues, full of wry wisdom, are pleasures to read and reread. . . . Readers will finish the book only with satisfaction, meditation and amazement at a dreamlike novel by one of America’s finest, most imaginative authors.” —Yiyun Li, San Francisco Chronicle

“Drury is an enormously skilled . . . storyteller. He delights in lulling the reader with meandering yet entertaining dialogue.” —Robert Draper, The New York Times Book Review

“His stark, spare prose has a poetic quality . . . Not a word is wasted.” —Lisa McLendon, The Wichita Eagle

“Drury writes in a plain, straightforward style that seems as transparent as water but, like the frozen lake over which Pierre glides on his late father’s skates, is much deeper than it appears. Hardly a word is wasted in this fine short novel, and almost every detail is significant.” —Timothy J. Lockhart, The Virginian Pilot

“Impossibly charming . . . A soft, dreamy, otherworldly tale, hypnotic in the telling.” —The San Diego Union-Tribune

“An intriguing meditation on fate and coincidence that engages both on a visceral and an intellectual level.” —The Providence Journal

“[Drury has] a deadpan-comic ear for small-town life and an eye for the singular moral codes of the characters who inhabit them.” —Frank Bentayou, Cleveland Plain-Dealer

“A Drury story, like many by Alice Munro, is apt to jump its banks as it flows, wonderfully freeform, with devilment in its details. . . . The Driftless Area is about growing into life . . . There are twists worthy of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and vengeance, but not for the obvious reasons. A ghosting of the past seems always to haunt the present, and to be if not inexplicable, then at least ambiguous.” —Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune

“A small masterpiece.” —Lincoln Journal Star

“Despite its supernatural elements, Driftless achieves a certain realness . . . It can be read in several hours and thought about for days, as intricate as it is simply put.” —Austin Chronicle

“A near-masterpiece . . . Drury imbues the landscape with an impersonal, threatening and ancient chill that’s a bit reminiscent of Twin Peaks, complete with sudden appearances of the supernatural.” —Thomas Haley, Time Out Chicago

“The latest way station in [Drury’s] fascinating artistic evolution is The Driftless Area, a fast, mean, beautiful little book about a man and a woman who become linked through a cycle of revenge . . . The Driftless Area is a book of hard, tangible surfaces, yet it is absolutely drenched in mystery.” —St. Petersburg Times

“Hypnotic . . . [Pierre and Stella’s] inevitable—exactly the right word, as you’ll learn—affair sets in motion a chain of wild events that ends in murder and the triumph of love.” —People

“With a spare and direct prose style, Driftless is full of wonderfully ironic characters and cool moments of small wisdom.” —Gilbert Cruz, Entertainment Weekly

“Tom Drury’s spooky neo-noir novel, The Driftless Area proves there is no one better at tangling up the lives of small-town Midwestern weirdos.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Coen brothers-meet-David Lynch characters . . . . entertainingly weird detail that shines throughout.” —Publishers Weekly

“Drury’s evocative depiction of small-town life and an unpredictable plot with a touch of the supernatural will appeal to the same readers who enjoy independent films.” —Library Journal

“[A] moody and mysterious tale. Over the course of four original novels, Drury has forged an entrancing form of midwestern paranormal noir. Deadpan wit, cosmic melancholy, characters both ethereal and down and dirty, predicaments a Beckett character would accept as inevitable, and a porous divide between the living and the dead add up to a delectably unnerving outlaw fairy tale.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Drury ties up all the threads (Shane, the fire, Stella) with consummate skill. . . . The bittersweet ending is a perfect mix of light and dark. Drury is a master at showing extraordinary things happening to ordinary people—and it’s always a fun ride.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Its mix of Midwestern domestic detail, ghostly visitations, and crime noir likewise serve the cause of recognizing the complexity of human experience.” —Alan Davis, Hudson Review

“Dark, funny, existential, and deeply Midwestern. . . . A modern fable filled with odd, hilarious introspection played out among a crowd of eccentric characters and broad, easy spaces that offer endless room for calamity. . . . Mystery readers and book groups will feast on this novel and relish picking at its bones.” —Sarah Bagby, Watermark Books

“Enjoy it, and maybe learn a little something about keeping on in a world of serendipity.” —Bruce Jacobs, Watermark Books Newsletter

“A fast, mean, beautiful little book. . . . Absolutely drenched in mystery.” —John Freeman, Hartford Courant

“In Tom Drury’s splendid new novel the writing is like fresh lake water—transparent, revealing all depths, and so truly original. It has left me thoughtful, so caught up in the story, wishing it would go on and on. Even the wicked people in Drury’s take are plainly seen and written about with understanding—that is, real charity.” —Paula Fox, author of The Coldest Winter and Borrowed Finery

Praise for Tom Drury:

“Every page yields wonderful surprises—of invention, of insight, of language.” —Richard Russo on The Black Brook

“Drury ranks right up there with Robert Stone when it comes to depicting the futility of American wanderlust.” —Boston Herald on The Black Brook

“A unique voice, Drury will nonetheless appeal to fans of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.” —Booklist (starred review) on The Black Brook

“What excellent champagne Tom Drury is. He makes you feel smarter and funnier than you have any real right to. Under his spell you can appreciate both the scary emptiness and the scary fullness of your life, and when you’ve finished the bottle you wish you had more. Drury is a big-time American talent, and Hunts in Dreams is his best book yet.” —Jonathan Franzen, on Hunts in Dreams

“Beguiling . . . Perceptive and captivating.” —The New York Times on Hunts in Dreams

“A gorgeous, inexplicably sad and funny novel.” —Salon.com on Hunts in Dreams

“Remarkable . . . Simply stuns you with the elegance and beauty of its writing.” —Entertainment Weekly on The End of Vandalism

“Rich and readable . . . [Drury] possesses his made-up world with the same authority Sherwood Anderson brought to Winesburg, Ohio, and Faulkner to Yoknapatawpha County.” —USA Today on The End of Vandalism

“Remarkably funny . . . astonishingly vivid.” —Los Angeles Times on The End of Vandalism

“So amiably dense with anecdote and observation, the reader is bounced along by its energy.” —The Boston Globe on The End of Vandalism


A New York Times Editors’ Choice
A Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year



Their names were Pierre Hunter and Rebecca Lee, and they were seventeen years old, and he had come to see her in the hospital, because she had got pneumonia after running in a cross-country match on a rainy weekend.

She lay in the bed, holding the rails with pale and slender hands, and said it had to be dark in the room or she could not sleep.

“This is not darkness,” she said. “The light comes in all night.”

“Maybe keep the blinds drawn.”

“I do. I’m talking about when they’re drawn.”

Pierre walked over and looked out the window.

The parking lot was lit by a grid of streetlamps, one of which stood just outside the glass. And the light it gave was white with a blue center.

“I see what you mean,” he said. “It’s sort of like arc welding.”

“You should be here later, when the lights are out in the room,” she said. “As bad as it is now, it’s worse then. And it makes a humming sound, which I don’t like either.”

“Yeah. I don’t hear that.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, which was short and brown with red streaks and sharp tufts like sideburns.

“Well,” she said, “it’s not doing it now.”

“Did you talk to somebody?”

“They gave me this.”

She opened a drawer in the night table and tossed him a black eye mask with an elastic strap.

“To wear on my head,” she said. “Do you believe it? Who could sleep with that on their eyes?”

“Probably some people can,” said Pierre. “Not this one.”

“Otherwise they wouldn’t make them.”

“Just tell them to shut it off, okay?”

When it was time to leave, Pierre went to see the nurse in charge of the floor. She nodded in a rapid tremor and looked beyond him, as if she had written off in advance whatever he might have to say.

“Rebecca is heavily medicated,” she said. “She doesn’t always know what’s going on. She’s sleeping. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“There’s this light.”

“Oh, yes. The light she talks about.”

“Well, I mean, there is a light.”

“Of course there is a light.”

“And it makes a noise.”

“There are lots of lights,” said the nurse. “It’s a hos­pital. I imagine we would have a few lights and noises. And it would be a very dark hospital indeed if we start shutting lights off for no more reason than this.”

They talked or argued for a while longer. Pierre fig­ured that the nurse was the sort of person who always dealt with requests by saying they were impossible, even if they weren’t or she had no idea.

But on the next night, three lights in the parking lot did go out, including the one outside Rebecca’s window.

Sent to investigate, an electrician from the hospital found that a circuit breaker had tripped in a locked box on a ramp behind the Dumpsters.

This was a little odd but it happened from time to time, and the electrician reset the switch, and the lights came on, and he thought no more about it until the next night, when the same three lights were out again, and again he turned them on.

On the third night the electrician got a thermos of coffee and waited in his truck in the parking lot. Around ten o’clock he saw someone in a hooded sweatshirt leave the hospital, walk up the ramp, open the breaker box, and turn off the lights.

The electrician capped the thermos and stepped down from the truck. Cleverly, he did not call out or make noise, and he almost caught up with the tall hooded figure without a chase. But not quite. There was a chase, and the electrician was not a fast runner, and the one who put the lights out would have got away except that he made the mistake of veering into the hospital gardens, which were in a courtyard with no other way out. There the electrician caught him by the arm and pulled the hood back and saw that it was only a kid.

“Not so fast, you,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Pierre Hunter,” said Pierre. “My girlfriend’s on the third floor. She can’t sleep because of the lights.”

“Let me tell you something,” said the electrician.

“Tampering with hospital electricity is not only illegal, it’s dangerous. You could cut somebody’s life support off. Did you ever think of that?”

“As if they would run the power for something like that through the parking lot,” said Pierre.

“Oh, you’re a wiring expert now.”

“And there’s a diagram inside the cover.”

“Yes, quite,” said the electrician. “I drew it. But tell me this. How are you opening the lock?”

“The combination’s on the back,” said Pierre.

They went to the breaker box, where the electrician saw that it was true.

“Kind of defeats the purpose,” he said.

He reset the circuit, but as chance would have it, while two of the lights came on and stayed on, the third flared and burned out.

“Is that the one?” said the electrician. “I think it is.”

“I guess she’ll sleep okay tonight.”

What Pierre had done could have been interpreted as a misguided attempt to override an uncaring bu­reaucracy, and the hospital knew this. Rebecca Lee was not the only one who had complained about the lights and the sound they made.

So instead of going to the police, the chief of secu­rity just told Pierre to stay out of the hospital. And the parking lot too.

One night during Pierre’s banishment from the hospi­tal grounds, a friend of Rebecca’s named Carrie Sloan came to the Hunter place, above the town of Shale, where Pierre lived in a big house on three acres with his mother and father and their dog, a Labrador re­triever named Monster.

Pierre had been out in the yard listening to the owls in the hemlocks, and now he and Carrie talked in the garage by the Sabre mowers.

“Listen, Rebecca’s breaking up with you,” said Car­rie. “She wanted you to be the first to know.”

“Oh, good,” said Pierre.


“But you knew before I did.”

“Well, you’re among the first.”

“She could have called.”

“She can’t deal with the phone right now, Pierre.”

“Have somebody dial and hold the receiver.”

“Is the phone the real issue?” said Carrie Sloan. “Probably not, right? Of course it must be painful and everything.”

“It’s not because of the light.”

“No. She’s forgotten all about that. There is no why, Pierre. It is what it is.”

“What does that mean?”

“Think about it.”

“Of course it is what it is. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be.”

“Well, it’s a very popular thing to say.”

“I guess it means ‘Too damned bad, ain’t it.’”

“If that’s what you want it to mean,” she agreed. “Even before she got sick I couldn’t tell if she wanted to go with me anymore.”

“Well, now you know. She doesn’t.”

“Have her write me a letter.”

“I’ll pass along your request but I can’t make any promises.” Turning toward a white MGA in the garage, she asked, “Is that your car?”

“I can drive it,” said Pierre. “It’s not mine per se.”

They stood and looked at the two-seat convertible. The tense curve of the back fenders gave way to a long sweep of side panels, and the grill reclined sharply be­tween eager round headlamps.

“Let’s go for a spin,” said Carrie.

“Okay, jump in.”

Pierre revved the MGA and bolted up to the power station that some called Frankenstein’s Playground and parked at the chain link gate. They hardly talked along the way because the ride took only a few minutes.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” said Pierre.

She laid her long arm on the door of the car and smiled crookedly, as if she had him all figured out de­spite not really caring if she figured him out or not.

She was famous for this smile in high school.

“Is this your idea of a funny place to take me?” she said.

“Sort of, yeah.”

“You’re mad at me for bearing the message.”

“It’s the way you bear it,” said Pierre. “You’re obvi­ously getting into it.”

“So, is your heart broken or what? Are you crying? I hope you’re not crying.”

“Just on the inside.”

“Do you ever say anything serious?”

“Sometimes, sure,” Pierre admitted. “You know what the guy said to me when he caught me putting out the lights? ‘Yes, quite.’ Isn’t that strange? Could he be English?”

“I don’t know,” said Carrie. “Anyone could be English.”

“That’s true.”

“If they’re from England.”

“Yes, that would decide it.”

Carrie was captain of the poetry team, and she said that she had written a poem about Rebecca at the track meet where she caught pneumonia.

“Let’s hear it,” said Pierre.

Oak leaves ladle rain on the runners in the rain
And we wait for Rebecca in vain.
Like a horse hemmed in by the herd
She can’t get free to lead. Something isn’t right—it’s plain—
Because she excels on this terrain.

“That’s good,” said Pierre. “But what.”

“Oh, nothing.”

“No, no, that’s all right. I hear some hesitation there.”

“Well, it kind of goes in and out as far as rhyming, but I guess you can do that.”

She nodded. “Not only can you, but I like to.”

Pierre took her back to the house and watched her drive away and then he went in.

The Hunter house was tall and creaky, with dusty vases on wooden tables and narrow stairways that climbed high into the shadows, and Pierre’s parents were in the living room watching the movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Monster, the black Lab, slept in flat profile on the faded red carpet.

Pierre felt his way into a black leather chair while watching the TV screen, and he considered telling them what Carrie Sloan had said, but then he thought that probably he wouldn’t.

“Why is this a classic?” said his mother. “I really want to know. It’s all about singing and transportation as far as I can tell.”

Pierre’s father picked up the newspaper and rattled it and put his glasses on and read. “It has ‘an elegiac qual­ity of the Western vastness.’”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

Among John Wayne’s finest performances.”

“Maybe. But when I see him I don’t see anything but John Wayne.”

“That’s what a star is.”

“I think it’s better when the hero is sort of unas­suming and you don’t know who it will be.”

Pierre put his legs up and watched the TV over his knees. “Tell me again why she wears the yellow ribbon.”

“She wears it for her lover in the U.S. Cavalry.”

“Look, Monster,” said Pierre’s father. “There’s a dog in John Wayne’s regiment.”

He talked to Monster all the time and often replied for her in a voice higher and denser than his own.

“What about a walk, girl?” he would say, holding the leash in his hands and looking down at the Lab’s deep and skeptical eyes.

I don’t know. Looks pretty rainy.”

“Oh, you’ll love it. Come on.”

Pretty fucking rainy out there.”

“I thought you were supposed to be a water dog.”

Yeah, you know, that’s really overstated. I’m going to go lie down now.”

“No, let me put your leash on.”

Go ahead, you won’t like it.”

“On you, I mean. . . .”

Pierre’s parents were eccentric and admired figures in Shale. They had arrived in town in the middle of their lives, having divorced other spouses and left other families in far-off Council Bluffs.

The scandal of this was apparent but never seemed to touch them somehow. They worked hard, paid atten­tion to the world, and threw raucous card parties. They had Pierre at an age when many parents, themselves in­cluded, had children who were almost grown.

Pierre’s mother managed the insurance office in Shale and his father was an electrophysicist for an aerospace fabricator in Desmond City. No one understood what that amounted to, not even Pierre. His father could ex­plain it, but only in the sort of language that the human mind tends to forget in an instant.

Once, when Pierre was fourteen, he and the Lab­rador pup Monster were nosing around in the base­ment and found a pair of ice skates hanging by frayed laces on a nail in the basement. The skates were well made and heavy but scuffed and scarred and brittle with age. He took them down and carried them upstairs.

He found his father in his study, where he was on the telephone with someone at the lab where he worked.

“Try shaking it,” he said. “You did, huh? Well, redo it then. . . . I don’t care. Just lay it on the table for the time being. . . . Don’t worry about that. It just doesn’t. That’s what everybody says. . . . Where does the capacitance come from? See what I mean. It’s got to come from somewhere.”

He looked at Pierre. “I’m on hold,” he said.

“Are these yours?” said Pierre.

“I’m surprised they’re still around. I used to play hockey, you know. Wasn’t too bad at it, either.”

“Can I have them?” said Pierre.

His father nodded. “Sure, take them.”

Into the phone he said, “Yeah. . . . No, no, no. Did you read chapter eight? I’m pretty sure it’s in there. . . . Well, read it again.”

Pierre tried to work up a stormy heart of romantic loss about breaking up with Rebecca. It gave him li­cense to drink and brood with hard eyes, which he found interesting.

After he got hammered one night at a high place above Lens Lake called the Grade, his parents found him standing in the kitchen.

“What if there was a language with only one word in it?” he asked.

“It would be easy to learn,” said his mother.

“And with that word they would say everything, every time they spoke,” said Pierre.

“Yeah, that would be some language,” said his father.

“What are you on?”

“Just drinking,” said Pierre. “Just good old American drinking. You seem old tonight. You both seem old.”

This was honest, though a crummy thing to say, and he would have reason to regret it.

“You make us old,” said his mother. “The way you go around, Pierre, I wonder what will become of you.”

“You’re not even sad,” said his father. “Not really. You’re just trying to steal the spotlight of Rebecca’s illness.”

“It’s possible but not probable,” said Pierre.

His father drew a glass of water from the faucet and gave it to him. “Drink this,” he said. “Maybe you should have gone to boarding school. I don’t know if it’s been so good for you around here.”

“I wouldn’t mind if they had lacrosse,” said Pierre. “And I think most of them do.”

“You play football.”

“I like those lacrosse sticks, though.”

“This came for you,” said his mother.

It was a letter from Rebecca, which Pierre took up to his room to read in bed.

Dear Pierre,

I can’t believe senior year beckons and with it our last chance to do the things that will last a lifetime in our memories. Whoever said every day is a gift from somewhere really had the right outlook. As Carrie told you, I want to be free to see other people in our last year at Shale-Midlothian High. Always remember how I wore your coat on the field trip to Effigy Mounds.

Yours truly,

Pierre let the letter sail down to the floor. It sounded as if she were dating a class-ring salesman, though he was touched that she remembered wearing his coat. But they never did get back together, and the following year Rebecca moved to Arizona, where her father took a job with the city of Yuma, and Pierre never saw her again.

The years went by. Pierre went off to college in Ames, 175 miles south and west. It took him five years to fin­ish. His parents died the winter of his third year. His mother’s death had been predicted for some time, but his father’s heart quit on him without warning three weeks later. His father was coming home from the hardware store in Shale and pulled over to the side of the road, where a mailwoman making her rounds found him in his car.

When Pierre looked back on that time it was as if he were seeing it through clouded glass. He moved like a sleepwalker among people in suits and dresses, people hovering in stairwells. That his parents were gone seemed impossible. He thought of them as still alive. The problem loomed but the solution was out of reach. It felt like there was still something he might do if only he could think of it.

A kind of nervous seizure came upon him as he waited for his father’s funeral to begin at the Church of the Four Corners. His hands shook and his breath grew short. He got up and sidled down the row of half sib­lings from Council Bluffs. He left the main part of the church and went up two stories to the bell tower and stood looking out over the half wall at the light on the snow-covered hills. He smoked a cigarette and put it out and then he cried pretty hard and for a long while. He had a blue handkerchief like the old farmers car­ried, and with it he wiped his face and blew his nose. The light bothered his eyes because it was so bright and thin and evidently unaware of what it was shining on.

Reading Group Guide

1. Does it seem at times as if Pierre is living in a world that only exists in his own mind, like a character from a Coen brothers movie? What are some neo-noir elements that seem like a riff on the movies? Do you see a bizarre combination of screwball comedy and menace? Guns, booze, and gangsters in a town that yearly celebrates a failed bank robbery: how does Drury weave these components into a tale that is surreal, maverick, and touching?

2. Paradoxes can both illuminate life and throw us off balance. Sometimes in this book the shifts in time and perspective feel like a fun house, a hall of mirrors, or a moon walk. We—and Pierre—have to re-view our usual ways of seeing things, both time and events. What are some of the beyond-strange happenings? Does Pierre think these events are real? Does it matter? (We do know about his childhood UFO sighting that no one else believed and that “he’d had an interest in aliens ever since” p. 39.)

3. Why is the book about time important to Pierre . . . and to The Driftless Area? “The idea of the book is that time doesn’t exist. And everything that ever happened or ever will was here from the start. And even, I think, different versions of what will seem to happen. Or not here, but somewhere. That’s the confusing part. As to where it is exactly. But all at once” (pp. 70-71). Does this passage help you to come to terms with what happens in the story?

4. How do we begin to realize that we’re in a fabulous tale, a world of fable? “Everything looked different following his encounter with the old man” (p. 25). Who is the old man? What is his relationship with Stella? What other examples tell us we’re in a world of fable?

5. What is the angle of vision in the novel? Does it hold mostly to Pierre’s thoughts and actions? When does the point of view change? Think of Stella, Shane, Ned, and their friends. Consider, too, the focus on Pierre’s friends after the last shoot-out.

6. Even as he is caught up in pell-mell events, Pierre is in a process of finding himself, or actually creating himself. How would you describe him in the beginning? How does he change? Who contributes to the shifts? When are times that he seems like a pawn? When does he take charge of his own possibilities? For instance, think of his self-defense course and the ironic comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

7. What use does the story make of chance and coincidence? “Sometimes things happen that seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems move toward disorder” (p. 97). This passage refers to the magnificent arc of the magic stone, but Pierre has defied the odds of probability various times. Can you think of other examples?

8. Did you find symbolism in some of the names? Pierre (and his talisman?); Stella (otherworldliness? brightness?); Rosmarin; The Jack of Diamonds; The Driftless Area; Shane; others?

9. How is the story about storytelling as well as about the characters? Metafiction—fiction about the process of fictionalizing—can be a challenging game set up by the author but also a way to examine truths that are revealed more meaningfully in art than “in life.” How does Drury remind us of these ideas while he keeps propelling this page turner?

10. How does Drury’s tone affect our reading? Is the attitude crisp and distanced? Hardboiled (like Hemingway)? Lyrical, gentle, appreciative? Ironic? Does Drury play off various tones? At times he seems gleeful in the outlandish plot; at other times, he seems philosophical, even prophetic. Give examples. Talk about these rich layers in the book.

11. Do you agree with Jonathan Franzen who said, “Reading Drury always makes a reader feel smart”? What is it about Drury that goads, expands and perplexes us? Think about his startling images, often with powerful metaphoric compression. Can you find examples? The clues to this mystery-adventure-revenge fantasy are generous but thorny. Going back over the book may lift some veils.

12. Is Pierre truthful about himself? If so, does that directness get him into trouble? When does it have its rewards?

13. What were some of the funniest scenes? The comedy and the melodrama at times remind us of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Talk about the ongoing comparison between the hapless Bank Robbery Days gang and the Shane crowd. Much of the humor is in one-liners, such as “a woman in a tan Karmann Ghia who laughed beautifully and lit up a metal hash pipe, winking like Santa’s sexy niece as the white smoke curled around her face” (p. 88). And recall the delicious climactic moment when “there were simultaneous detonations as the chain broke and the airbags went off” (p. 188). What were some of your favorites?

14. What are some of the objects that gather accretions of meanings as the story progresses? Consider the rock, of course, and the cell phone, the cello, harmonica, and ice skates. How are these objects used in the book?

15. How is light in the book sometimes benevolent and sometimes menacing? First is the intrusive light in Rebecca’s hospital room. How does it give Pierre his initial chance at heroism? And recall that during his father’s funeral, Pierre climbs the bell tower to cry and observe “the light on the snow-covered hills . . . The light bothered his eyes because it was so bright and thin and evidently unaware of what it was shining on” (p. 15). If not directly threatening, the image questions the assumptions of the church with its benevolent, caring Being. When Pierre falls inexplicably through a black hole of ice, “the light went out” for him sinking into a deathly cold. When he is delivered by Stella (star), he says “And now I owe you a great favor . . . that only I can do,” sounding like a medieval knight with a marvelous and probably dangerous task. When are other times that light is symbolic? The strobe light when they make love? The silver dust pervasive in Pierre’s vandalized apartment? The fatal lamp swinging in the trees? (That image reminds us of old-time larcenous “moonspinners” that lured ships to their destruction by swinging lamps on the headlands.) And recall that after Pierre is sent down the dark tunnel (to a light and a bed, says Stella), he awakens in the fall—some fall—to moonlight. He’s Rip Van Winkle but welcomed by a woman with whom he walks “down the orchard row with the moonlight on the leaves” (p. 213). Do you see other patterns in Drury’s use of light?

16. What are some mythologies that contribute to the mock epic in the novel? Traditionally the epic has a hero of mixed innocence and wiles who sets out on a quest, a journey of discovery. (Recall that Stella tells Pierre to go on to California . . . and then come back and tell her stories about it.) On the journey the epic hero may encounter temptations, deceptions, terrifying ogres, surprising hospitality, and friendship. Do you see these things in The Driftless Area? Do you see echoes of David and Goliath, Robin Hood, Odysseus, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Who is the official bard of the book? (“For I wonder if we are not lame/ To glory in faded criminal fame./ Or, on the other hand, it just might be/ That we retain a lust for larceny” p. 165). Are you reminded of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or maybe Thelma and Louise?

Suggestions for further reading:

Song of the World by Jean Giono; Mythologies by W. B. Yeats; Independent People by Halldor Laxness; Chinese Ghost and Love Stories by P’u Sung Ling, translated by Rose Quong; Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah; Adventures of Lucky Pierre by Robert Coover; The End of Vandalism, The Black Brook and Hunts in Dreams by Tom Drury

Author Q&A by Susan Avery

Q: Your writing is full of poignant humor, a keen sense of irony and a distinct American social reality. It has the quality of Mark Twain in the twenty-first century. I think that aspiring American writers of the future will find your work very vital. Who are the authors you most admire and who are the authors you think have influenced you?

A: The list is long (Chekhov, Diderot, Melville, Tolstoy, Gogol, Yeats, Machado de Assis, Sherwood Anderson, Saint-Exupéry, Willa Cather, Jean Giono, Beckett, Henry Green, Bellow, DeLillo, Kobo Abe, Charles Portis, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Jamaica Kincaid, Ian Frazier, Veronica Geng, Donald Barthelme, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Larry Brown, Cormac McCarthy, Jayne Anne Phillips, Barry Hannah, Jeffrey Eugenides, Walter Kirn, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Franklin, Susan Minot, Sherman Alexie, Julie Hecht, Haruki Murakami, Joy Williams, Annie Dillard, Halldór Laxness, David Mamet, Richard Hugo, Daniel Woodrell) and that is leaving some out, I know I imagine they have all influenced me the way that things do when you love them. Also music (the storytelling in the Basement Tapes; the Fiery Furnaces, that moment in “Tired Eyes” where Neil Young says, “Well, it wasn’t supposed to go down that way”) and films (Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman, the White, Red, and Blue trilogy, Don’t Look Now, McCabe and Mrs. Miller). Two books in particular that made me want to write something like The Driftless Area were Yeats’s Mythologies and the stories of a writer named Pu Sung-Ling who lived in China in the seventeenth century. Both have lots of nature and lots of magic. And yes, Mark Twain. I once wrote a research paper called “Two Rivers” arguing that between Huck Finn and Nick Adams, Huck was by far the savvier character.

Q: Your novels and stories take place in the American Midwest. Do you consider yourself a regional writer? Do you think there really is such a thing? What traits of the region, its landscape, its people, its history make it attractive as a setting?

A: I’m not sure what a regional writer is. I imagine that the books that were around and the way stories were told in the place where you grew up do influence your writing. In my house we had Perry Mason books and Zane Grey. (Della Street . . . Stella, hmmm.) But everyone grows up somewhere so that wouldn’t make someone regional and someone else not. And actually if you read my work and then go to the Midwest, you will probably find big disparities. My sense of the Midwest stopped being informed by actually living there around 1980 when I moved to Boston. Since then, I have lived in New England, mostly, Florida for a few years, and now California. So for me the Midwest that I write about is a place that exists entirely in memory. It’s not meant to be accurate of then or now. It’s a stage for human beings to get tangled up as they do wherever they live. And it’s an open stage. You can be outdoors a lot and there are opportunities to tell a story that moves ahead and doesn’t linger too much. As for history, what I found interesting growing up is that we never felt we had any history. It was as if we had all just arrived not too long ago from who knows where.

Q: Your first novel, The End of Vandalism, was published over ten years ago and established you as a rising star with comparisons to Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson. I loved the novel and found your voice to be quite unique and contemporary, even though the story has a definite timelessness. The numerous characters are inseparable from our contemporary condition. Most striking is their dialogue, which has a very real, almost super-real, quality. Do the characters determine the way they speak or does the way they speak determine the character? How did you develop such a keen ear?

A: The way they speak determines the character. Once I was asked if it’s hard to keep a character consistent. But I never want to keep the characters all that consistent anyway because among real people I don’t find too much consistency. It’s when they’re not consistent that it’s most interesting. It’s funny you should ask how I developed a keen ear because my hearing has always been pretty bad. Lots of times I find myself trying to reconstruct or guess what has just been said so I can make a normal response. Maybe the filling in of both sides of the conversation that you do when you’re not sure what you’re hearing helps when you go to create dialogue.

Q: In your most recent novel, The Driftless Area, there is an unusual sense of chronology. Some of the characters seem to be aware of what has happened and what will happen, whereas others exist in what we think of as ordinary time. This seems a very complex construction, like a quilt or a stained glass window. How do you conceive and create such a plastic narrative?

A: Plastic is the right word because it was changing all the way down the line. It was pretty elliptical in the early drafts and my editor, Elisabeth Schmitz, kept after me, very patiently, to—as I would put it—keep the reader in the game. (I don’t know why but I have always been blessed with some of the best editors in the business.) I was fairly uncertain how easy it would be to understand what was happening, and I have been gratified in that so far, knock on wood, it seems like people follow it. For this thank Elisabeth. As to the characters who seem to be aware of what will happen, they’re a lot like the author. And I thought this while I was writing. Even to the extent that they kind of know but feel that it could go either way; or that, eventually, they really do know, but they’re not looking forward to it.

Q: The Driftless Area is very spare and yet very rich. One of the ways in which the reader takes in a lot, without too much exposition, is through names. Pierre Hunter’s life turns on the hurling of a rock, and Stella Rosmarin is possessed of light and flowery traits, with a caution of concealed thorns. Some of the other names, such as Roland and Shane, seem to make reference to established legends. I would love to know more about the baptism of your characters.

A: Usually there is some reason that the entire name or the separate parts are familiar to me. Like Pierre and Becky, who open the book, I know exactly who they are, and trust me when I say that you would not guess. Usually the reasons are random and don’t telegraph the character’s identity, but maybe in this book they do a little more. I liked Shane because, as I remember the movie, there is a scene in which Shane and an antagonist are fighting in a bar and they circle each other, feinting and dodging, for what to me was a comically long time before they actually fight. Roland, I have to say, owes more to Warren Zevon than to an ancient story. It’s inexact. Sometimes you look back and think you never did come up with the right name for a character.

Q: In your novel Hunts in Dreams you revisited some characters you introduced in The End of Vandalism with their own story, almost a TV-type spin-off. Do you have any more stories with other folks from Vandalism in mind? It is hard to say good-bye to the Driftless gang. Is there any possibility that we might meet some of these people again?

A: Yes, it is possible, although Driftless seems to be more of a closed circle than my other works. And maybe you did not notice—it would be easy to miss—but there is someone from The End of Vandalism in The Driftless Area. Your job: find him.

Q: Many readers dislike seeing their favorite novels adapted to the screen. For them there is a real disconnect between the eye-brain perceptions of words as opposed to images. Publishers Weekly described The Driftless Area as “the Coen brothers-meet-David Lynch.” How do you feel about this comparison, and could you envision this novel as a movie? Just for fun, who would you like to see cast in the roles of the main characters?

A: I know what you mean about books that become movies. The Unbearable Lightness of Being might be an exception. I’m honored by the comparison since some of my favorite movies were made by those filmmakers. (Once I had a novel likened to an unmade John Cassavetes script, and I was honored by that too, though I think it was meant as a stinging criticism.) I try to see novels as they happen, so in a sense, I have already envisioned this novel as a movie. I don’t know about casting, for a couple reasons. First of all, the main characters would have to be in their early to mid-twenties and I’m not sure who those actors are. And second I don’t want to add extratextual (is that a word?) definition to the characters. Not that there is overdefinition to begin with. More interesting to me would be whom you would see in those roles, having read the book.