The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury, book review: A delicious slice of American pie


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The Independent Culture

This book – this astonishing, beautiful book – was published in the USA in 1994. I mention this not out of any interest in its chronology, but to register astonishment. How can it not have been published in the UK until now? How can we have missed it?

And I mean "missed". So impressive is the effect of The End of Vandalism that I look at those 20-years as somehow lost. Drury's descriptions are so tangible that it feels almost surprising that his characters don't wander out of the pages and shake you by the hand. Disappointing too, because I defy you to get to the end of The End of Vandalism and not love them. Not to feel like you have been entirely immersed into their world. It's a book that brings new meaning to the phrase "American Realism": this fictional slice of the American Midwest seems as solid and true as barn doors, pitch roofs and combine harvesters.

The main narrative concerns the small fictional town of Grouse and residents like Louise Darling and the two men who love Louise Darling: her soon to be ex-husband Tiny and thirtysomething local sheriff Dan Norman. Dan usurps Tiny – and also arrests him when he smashes a window at – yes – an "End of Vandalism" dance the community are holding to discourage people from wrecking things. And if that sounds like a dodgy joke, I've done the book a disservice. You have to experience its deadpan delivery first-hand to appreciate how well it works. Even lines like the following lose some of their power when taken out of context: "About Mary it was sometimes said that you could no sooner change her than you could teach a badger to fix cars."

There's a priceless zinger on every other page. But again that wouldn't do justice to the book. It's wonderfully funny, but there's more to it. Behind the hilarity, there's melancholy and deep human compassion.

Dan and Louise's first coupling, for instance: "Dan surprised Louise with his sexual side, and she felt like a retired skier from the movies who learns everything over again and wins the big jump against the East Germans in a blur of sun on snow." Funny, yet within a few short lines Drury deepened out the scene to leave Louise crying.

The best way to do justice to the book is to urge you to read it. When I first saw a copy I noted that Jonathan Franzen was quoted on the front. At the time, I thought Drury had done well to get such an endorsement. Now I've read The End of Vandalism, I realise it's the other way round. To be associated with something this good would be an honour for any writer.