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Strange, in a stranger land

The Driftless Area A Novel Tom Drury Atlantic Monthly Press: 216 pp., $22

July 30, 2006|J.D. Dolan | J.D. Dolan teaches at Western Michigan University and was recently awarded a fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts.

THERE is a region of the Midwest called the Driftless Area that is known chiefly for what didn't happen there: When vast stretches of North America were overrun with glaciers, this region remained essentially cut off from all the action, a window to a previous era.

"It used to be said that the glaciers steered around the Driftless Area entirely," but as Pierre Hunter, the charmingly unlikely hero of Tom Drury's new novel, understands, from "the modern geological point of view, this was not accurate, though he liked to think it was -- to picture the glaciers lifting their blue foreheads, taking their bearings, and splitting up with an agreement to meet down the line."

Pierre's life is not unlike the land beneath his feet. He grew up here, in the fictional town of Shale, Iowa, and he's back after five years at college, after the death of both his parents, working as a bartender. For Pierre, life -- romantic life, family life -- has always happened at a distance. He's come to accept this with a kind of Chaplinesque resignation: "The problem loomed but the solution was out of reach. It felt like there was still something he might do if only he could think of it."

Not long after he's back, he finds himself at a New Year's Eve party. Pierre goes outside for some air, has a chance meeting with an old man, and goes back into the party, only to realize -- too late -- that he's walked into the wrong party, but he refuses to leave until he's allowed to perform a coin trick. Pierre, in his semi-drunk state, might have thought this stunt would redeem him, but it only gets him arrested for trespassing and public drunkenness.

With deceptively simple prose, Drury is able to evoke characters and scenes in just a few brush strokes:

"The judge presiding over the charges against Pierre seemed young and lost in the robe of justice. It was black and slick like a poncho in the rain, and he kept pushing the sleeves up so they would not interfere with his hands.

"He was one of those judges who make it a point to know as little as possible about the cases before them. He would state the facts all wrong and rely on the lawyers to set him straight and in general seemed to resent having to deal with so many instances of societal breakdown.

"But he was a judge, Pierre thought, and must have aspired to become one, so what had he been expecting?"

Until this point, Drury may have a reader believing this is a conventional realistic novel, but clearly he is out for more of a genre-bending literary challenge.

The term "film noir" comes to mind -- or maybe it's "Midwestern neo-noir." And yet this story -- this tale -- has elements of the Brothers Grimm as well as the Brothers Coen. Drury does indeed transform Pierre's mundane existence into a fairy tale, but it's also a murder mystery, a revenge drama, a comedy and a love story.

Before he's even aware of it, life takes a sudden turn in Pierre's direction. This becomes clearer to him when he's skating across a lake on the way back from his lawyer's office. He falls through the ice and is rescued by a woman named Stella Rosmarin, who is beautiful, mysterious and secretive.

In a series of events that seem at once extraordinary and inevitable, Pierre finds himself in possession of $77,000 in stolen money, has a whacked-out guy tracking him down with the intent to kill him and, on top of all that, discovers that this whole mess may have something to do with Stella -- if she really is Stella.

Stella may not be exactly who she says she is, but, whoever she is, Pierre loves her.

"She reached for the ceiling, tilted her head, and yawned. Her eyes widened, her hands curled into fists with the knuckles touching overhead, and she said, 'Yow,' in a high soft voice.

"It was the most beautiful yawn Pierre had ever seen."

Now Stella needs help, and Pierre is evidently the only person who can provide it. "You saved my life," Pierre says. "I haven't forgot that. And I won't let you down if I can figure out how not to."

This isn't easy for luckless, hapless Pierre, but it's almost as if he'd been waiting for this his whole life -- or maybe it had been waiting for him. It's hard to pin things down in this novel of shifting identities, and yet, in the end, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is this: Life has always happened at a distance from Pierre, and now, for better or for worse, he's right in the middle of it.

Sometimes an author's literary experiments can make for annoying reading, as if the writer's amusement was more important than a reader's engagement. This isn't one of those books. Drury does indeed bend one genre around another, and in doing do he's come up with a region entirely his own.

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