FICTION: An Iowa boy negotiates a new life in California.
On the first page of Tom Drury’s slim, strange “Pacific,” Tiny Darling tells his son Micah that if he’s ever in a fight, “What you do is put your head down and ram them in the solar plexus. It’s unexpected.” It’s an appropriate beginning, given all of the unexpected twists Drury takes in this follow-up to his much lauded “The End of Vandalism.”
Tiny and Micah Darling are but two of the denizens of Grouse County, Iowa, on whom Drury trains his gaze. Indeed, by the time we reach the third page, we’ve already met another half-dozen characters. And before the end of the novel we’ve met countless others.
There’s Lyris, Micah’s older sister, and her boyfriend, Albert. We first meet the two of them while they sit on their couch smoking weed, contemplating the sturdiness of moving boxes. There’s Dan Norman, retired sheriff of Grouse County and now private detective, who’s on a case involving fake Celtic artifacts.
Then there’s Joan Gower, Micah’s mother, now a B-list actress; she reclaims her son in the opening chapter and brings him to California, where he’s introduced to a world of privileged excess and beguiling romantic entanglements.
It’s an eccentric menagerie, to be sure, and one that takes some getting used to. This is partly because most of the scenes in “Pacific” are short and peculiar, like clips from a David Lynch film. The effect for this reader was one of alienation. Couple this with the fact that Drury’s humor can sometimes be mistaken for glibness, and there were times in the first half of the book when my frustrations outweighed my pleasures.
But the book does possess a cumulative sway, and as the myriad threads find a common tapestry in the book’s second half, a more cohesive emotional power comes to light. This is achieved mostly through the story of Micah Darling as he negotiates his new life in California. Between his mother’s self-importance and totally absent parenting skills, and his effort to make friends in a world where genuine human connection is hampered by chemical dependency and bankrupted values, Micah draws on memories of his father and sister to help him navigate his strange new world.
In one defining scene, Micah confronts a drunken man in a nightclub who has felt Charlotte up. After the same man hits Micah in the face, Micah puts his head down and rams into the man’s chest, knocking him out. “It was over in seconds and had gone just as Tiny had said it would.” It’s a strange bit of paternal wisdom played out, but there’s no denying its usefulness. At least not in the world of “Pacific.”
Peter Geye is the author of “Safe From the Sea” and “The Lighthouse Road.”