Even for the cynical, distracted 21st century reader, there are some passages of written prose that have the power to simply take your breath away. I find one such passage on page 134 of Tom Drury’s novel The End of Vandalism, which I urge upon any human being who enjoys dark humor and/or has lived in the Midwest at some point in their lives. Almost twenty years after its initial publication, it is still one of those books you hear mentioned in hushed tones. And every so often you will read a piece like this, in which one of its acolytes makes a passionate, imploring case for it. This spring, Daniel Handler wrote one of these panegyrics for the New York Times on the occasion of Drury’s most recent novel, Pacific; another example is Eugenia Williamson’s Boston Globe piece, which ran on election eve last year and began:
President Obama, Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, reverend clergy, fellow citizens:
We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of literature. For I swear before you and Almighty God a solemn oath: Tom Drury’s 1994 novel, “The End of Vandalism,” is the best comic novel about democracy of the last quarter-century.
Maybe this novel gathers so many vociferous advocates because it seems too modest and well-mannered to argue on its own behalf. Drury’s signature mode is wry understatement, but the novel in no way shies from big emotions and can quickly bring you from laughter to tears. In his introduction to the novel, Paul Winner, Washington University graduate and a very bright guy himself, recalls that “a fellow Midwestern novelist once confessed that reading Drury somehow made him feel smarter than he had any right to be.” I know the feeling. Impossible to summarize, because its brilliance is all in the particulars, Drury’s novel is a hilariously funny but also remarkably kind and observant glimpse into a small-town Iowa where “family agriculture seemed to be over and had not been replaced by any other compelling idea.”
Louise was breathing deeply onto his arm. He could see her dark hair beside him. Her breath was strangely cool in the heat, and he seemed to be breathing in time with her. This in fact was going to be the minor problem of the night. With each breath, he was taking in a little less air than his lungs required. You would have thought that breathing was automatic enough, but on this night Dan was going slowly breathless to Louise’s rhythm.
He got up, walked around the bed, and sat in a chair. Now he could make out the shape of her back. She was a being of beauty and tenderness from this vantage point, and maybe they should have met a long time ago. He was thirty-seven years old, and even though the county of which he was sheriff was not heavily populated, he had seen the worst things. Every kind of car accident, involving children, involving infants. And motorcycle accidents, in which the drivers seemed to have been fired into the pavement by a giant hand. He had seen people out of their heads and threatening to do their families harm. That happened every drinking night of the year. He had seen the consequences of murder-suicide, or whatever it was, in an otherwise neat kitchen with a sampler that said, “Bless This Mess.” He had a hard time squaring these memories with the plain sight of Louise brushing her hair in the morning, simply taking the hair in one hand and brushing the resulting ponytail with the other; or making a sarcastic statement, with light in her eyes and a glass poised at her lip; or driving the car with her hair tied back and her forearm slung over the door. She was turning now and saying something. He leaned toward the bed. ‘Wetlands,’ she said, just that. ‘Wetlands,’ in a low voice. And then either the breathing problem went away or he stopped being conscious of it.
From The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. Reprint edition, Grove Press, 2006.