The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury - book review: Oedipus Rex with a dose of hardboiled existentialism

It is hard to miss how the superficial thrills of Drury's plot are moved by distinctly ancient undercurrents

James Kidd
Tuesday 08 December 2015 19:23
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Pierre Hunter is hitch-hiking to his home in Iowa when he unwisely takes a ride from a man named Shane Hall. Stopping on a hard shoulder, Hall kicks Hunter literally to the kerb and drives off with his backpack. Hunter grabs a rock and throws a Hail Mary pass that hits Hall and causes the truck to crash. He retrieves his bag and $77,000 that Hall had taped to the engine. His Goliath act complete, Hunter quickly becomes the hunted.

Read as crime fiction, this curious but pivotal scene in Tom Drury's fourth novel is at once familiar and logic-defying. Read as Tom Drury, they make a characteristically messy kind of sense. “Sometimes things happen that seems to defy the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems move toward disorder.”

Drury has been quietly preparing us for this expression of controlled haphazardness from the moment Hunter is dragged from an icy lake by the beautiful Stella Rosmarin. The encounter seems coincidental, but we already know it is anything but. When Hunter ponders, “I'll have to go back and see here again”, the line resounds with desire but also inevitability. In case we missed the clues, Stella falls into the sort of trance that once gave Oracles double vision. What she sees is essentially Pierre's future progress.

It is hard to miss how the superficial thrills of Drury's plot are moved by distinctly ancient undercurrents. His realignment of thriller conventions has more in common with Oedipus Rex, say, than Gilbert Adair's postmodern Agatha Christie rewrites.

The novel's self-consciousness – stories within stories, a plethora of movies, plays, poems and paintings, sly allusions to Tolstoy's unfinished The Decembrists – feels more convincing as a meditation on the relationship between art and artist. As Hunter's quest becomes weirder, I felt Drury was daring himself to confound the limits of what he can dream up. Can we imagine things beyond our imagining? Or are a writer's characters destined to behave as they do?

The Driftless Area's hardboiled existentialism initially felt like a departure when compared to the loose, baggy charms of his “Grouse County” novels. By the end, I suspected he had simply flipped the parenthetical joys of the trilogy on their head. There, characters meander slowly towards a plot; here they float away from one towards unpredictability and the unknown. The effect is different and, ultimately, the same – fiction that is intriguing, mysterious, funny and wise.

Old Street, £8.99. Order for £8.54 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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