Hunts in Dreams by Tom Drury, book review: Trivia and drama in Grouse County

The book follows The End of Vandalism, Drury's extraordinary 1994 debut

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The Independent Culture

Why is this conversation taking place? The question, posed in the opening chapter of Tom Drury's second novel, just about describes his raison d'ecrire. Then again, so does: "It's all here… the beautiful and the unfortunate." Or: "What if the rules and verses she had lived by, or tried to, didn't mean what she thought they did? Or: "If it's true, I believe you."

Drury has a habit of dropping sentences out of the narrative blue that gently express his haphazard conception of haphazard existence. Given the crazy paving of his own literary career, this feels oddly fitting. First published in 2000 but finally released in the UK for the first time, Hunts in Dreams is condemned, once more, to the task of following The End of Vandalism, Drury's extraordinary 1994 debut.

Both books are set in Grouse County, a fictional locale in rural Iowa. Bravely and smartly, Drury doesn't follow The End of Vandalism's leading couple – Dan and Louise Norman – tracing instead their third wheel, Charles "Tiny" Darling, Louise's ne'er do well first husband. Here, Charles is married again, to Joan Gower, and has two children: Micah and Lyris, whom Joan gave up for adoption 16 years earlier. In Hunts in Dreams, Drury's likable, flawed characters pass their time chatting trivially (about goats, beer kegs, metal detecting, documentaries about hydroelectric power), suddenly interjecting important statements (on jealousy, aspiration, why a mother abandoned her child), before the trivia returns once more. Sometimes this alternation occurs so deftly within a single exchange the reader is left wondering what is deep and what shallow.

Drury is masterful at dialogue, but he is not all talk. Life gently boxes his cast into curiously dramatic situations. Charles breaks into a widow's house (he wants to retrieve a gun he believes is his) and is struck in the face with a coat hanger. Joan delivers a lecture on animal welfare and ends up sleeping with Grouse County's over-sexed medic.

Drury it seems has little desire to explain the world and its strange inhabitants, knowing such effort is hubristic at best. Instead his fiction draws in aching, vivid and often hilarious miniature our many bafflements. Micah locks his half-sister in a barn and weeps at his action. Lyris drinks spiked hot chocolate and spends a night in ambivalent flirtation with Grouse County's bad boy metal detector. The lusting doctor declares his lust ("Oh, Joan, when are we going to get it on?") and is immediately misheard: "Ah, Joan how are we going to get along?" Joan smooths out the misunderstanding (wrongly: the doctor does want to get it on) with a characteristic piece of Drury philosophising: "He must have been referring somehow to the unpredictable world in which they lived – a world in which small fires were ignited by accident and put out in haste and confusion – and nothing more."

Hunts in Dreams is shorter than Drury's debut without being any slighter. He can do levity, he can do gravity. He can intimate social commentary and burrow into an individual's soul. A wonder of modern fiction, Drury can do anything he wants.