PACIFIC. By Tom Drury. Grove. 194 pages. $25.
The first time Tom Drury took us to Grouse County, his own little Midwestern Yoknapatawpha, was in 1994.
“The End of Vandalism,” the opening novel in what is now a trilogy, is a merry and sad book about switching love partners, among many other things. Drury is such a benign guide that, in his telling, disaster often converts to laughter.
The epigraph to “The End of Vandalism” comes from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”: “If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on a good path and try not to leave it.”
The low-stakes expectations — so maybe you won’t be happy, after all — are pure Drury, along with a crazy faith in just trudging along to see what comes next. That is pretty much what his recurring characters (Dan Norman, Louise Darling Norman, Tiny Darling, and Joan Gower Darling) do over the course of the trilogy.
In “Hunts in Dreams” (2000), Drury’s gang follows a medley of dreamy visions, either blind or charmed by stardust, as one character says. Now, in “Pacific,” the good path takes some characters all the way to Los Angeles and the far edge of American dreaming.
“Pacific” begins where “Hunts in Dreams” ends, but seven years have passed. Joan Darling, who left home in “Hunts,” promising to be back in the spring, is still gone. In a funny turn, her religious and dramatic interests have merged. She lives in L.A. and stars as a nun, Sister Mia, in the TV series “Forensic Mystic.” Meanwhile, Tiny Darling, now her ex-husband, and 14-year-old Micah Darling, their son, are sitting right where we left them: on the back porch by the railroad tracks, watching the sun go down.
In the opening scene, Tiny is giving Micah lessons in manhood (“Say you get in a fight ... what you do is put your head down and ram them in the solar plexus. It’s unexpected”).
Soon Joan will be there to pick up Micah and take him back with her to Los Angeles. Drury doesn’t wring Micah’s leave-taking for sentiment; he’s too interested in the strange possibilities opened up by the move. But try not to cry when Micah says good-bye to his pet goat.
Micah feels that California and Grouse County are in different dimensions, and that he is the traveler between them. We know differently. Drury zigzags between places, ricocheting from person to person and scene to scene. What does not surprise is how distinctive, even bizarre, people are everywhere and how common are their desires.
L.A. is just a bigger village. Drury has a gift for snapshot descriptions of characters or feelings. A gravestone salesman is described like this: “He’s hyperactive. Puts on Aqua Velva at work.” A woman watching her lover sleep experiences “bearable loneliness.” Another observes, “Men have changed. You can’t count on them to be callous and evasive anymore.”
Drury draws out “strange variations on motherly behavior” in multiple plot lines. There’s Joan, painting a room and chalking a volley ball court for the child she abandoned. Back in the Midwest, Louise Norman (also Tiny Darling’s first wife) is both a daughter watching her mother age and a mother searching for a daughter to replace her own baby, who died. She becomes a sweet mother surrogate to Lyris, another of Joan’s abandoned children.
In one tender scene, she helps Lyris dye her hair magenta. Many characters have bad dreams and feel themselves to be aliens of one sort or another, most notably Sandra Zulma, a stranger who comes to town, she claims, via a tunnel under the ocean. Hers is the weirdest, most tragic story.
Micah, the more ordinary traveler, seems to be walking into one kind of scenario, a 90210 privileged teen pathology narrative, when he falls in with a group of drug-doing natives. If somebody else were telling the story, he’d be the rube who is scorned, or he’d be the emblem of corrupted innocence. Instead, he gets into a good school, makes friends automatically, and stays true to himself. His girlfriend, Charlotte Mann (“Everybody falls in love with Charlotte. It’s like a law of nature. Gravity, then Charlotte”), owns a prancing horse and sometimes falls down drunk. No matter. When she and Micah kiss, Drury expresses the freshness of young love everywhere.
In “Pacific,” Drury turns to the theater of the absurd playbook, or maybe just the theater of life, with all its wacky contingencies. As Micah writes in a school essay, “You can get in and out of trouble in unexpected ways.” Drury should be crowned champion of the unexpected. It’s great to have him back.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.