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West Meets Midwest In Tom Drury's Quirky 'Pacific'
Originally published on Wed May 15, 2013 9:44 am
There are novels you read to find out what happens next, and novels you read to linger in the moment. Tom Drury's new book, Pacific, falls squarely in the second category. Drury started writing about the inhabitants of fictional Grouse County in 1994, in The End of Vandalism, and continued with 2000's Hunts in Dreams. But to call Pacific a sequel implies that you need to read the first two installments to fully invest in this slight, beguiling third. You don't. Plot takes a back seat to sharp observations and deadpan wit in Drury's work, and Pacific can easily stand alone.
Micah Darling, age 14, has spent the past seven years living with his father, Tiny, in semirural Grouse County, located in an unnamed Midwestern state. Tiny earns a living doing odd jobs, like ripping pews out of an old church, and for kicks steals the occasional TV. As the novel begins, Micah is preparing to leave for Los Angeles to live with his mother, Joan, an actress on a TV show called Forensic Mystic. With this opening move, Drury establishes the split-screen narrative that will continue until the last pages of the book. Roughly half of the action unspools in expensive Hollywood restaurants and Beverly Hills mansions, the other half in the bedraggled heartland Micah left behind, with its fragrance of "tobacco, motor oil, gravel dust, things like that." Drury doesn't even try to stitch the pieces of the novel together. He juxtaposes the two worlds, tells his low-key stories and lets readers make any connections.
The Los Angeles Micah encounters is a flashy subculture familiar from sitcoms and tabloids: People have money, beauty, horses and substance-abuse problems. They work in show business and conduct extramarital liaisons in the mirrored dressing rooms of boutiques. We get fractured glimpses of this world, alternating between Joan's perspective, which is world-weary, and Micah's, which is anything but. Driving from the airport to his new home, he "could not imagine people and things enough to fill the buildings he saw." But he acclimates quickly and doesn't spend too much time wondering about any of it: "The Chateau Marmont rose above the trees. He knew it was important but not why." His concerns are the concerns of teenage boys everywhere: school, parties, the pretty girl he loves.
Meanwhile, back in Grouse County, Micah's half sister Lyris is working as a clerk for a gravestone salesman (a job you don't see much of in contemporary fiction) and regularly awakens in the night, terrified "that I will be left, or that it's the end of the world." Given up for adoption at birth, she has a deep-seated fear of abandonment. She strikes up a hesitant, restorative friendship with Louise, who owns the thrift shop beneath her apartment. Louise, too, awakens in the night full of sorrow, still mourning a newborn daughter who died many years earlier. "This is what the night does," Louise tells her husband, Dan. "Puts sad things in your mind."
The budding relationship between Lyris and Louise is the novel's sweetest storyline, and Dan, a private investigator, ushers in its most maddening. A shifty character named Jack Snow has moved to town and taken up with Wendy, a local woman who makes moccasins for a living (another profession we don't read about much these days). Drury brings her to life with a single, masterful sentence: "Wendy had thick blond hair, small and nimble hands, and a skeptical expression that invited you to talk her out of it."
Wendy's parents hire Dan to investigate Jack, whom they mistrust. And rightly so: An ex-con, he deals in counterfeit Celtic artifacts, an idea planted in his head years ago by a childhood friend. Before long, that childhood friend turns up in the wraithlike person of Sandra Zulma, who claims to have come to town through a tunnel under the sea. Is she a ghost? A garden-variety lunatic? An oracle? Obsessed with swords and swordplay, she's searching for an ancient Celtic rock that might be "the stone thrown by Cuchulainn to keep Conall's chariot from following him to Loch Echtra." Alternatively, it might be "a piece of the Lia Fail" or "a cairn stone left by the raiders of the Inn at Leinster."
In her quest, she crosses paths with virtually all of Drury's reality-based Grouse County characters, mystifying, charming or infuriating each of them in turn. She reads as an awkward device to bind all the loosely connected Grouse County stories together. And while most of the other characters are closely observed and vivid, she's a hazy specter from another genre altogether, seemingly injected into a small, wry novel to make it feel bigger and eerier, when it would work quite beautifully without her.