When Tom Drury and I meet on the Upper East Side, we can’t find any place to sit. I’d forgotten about the lunch rush and most places are too busy and loud to accommodate us. After following Drury for a block, he finally finds a dark, empty bar that meets his specifications. We settle into a burgundy booth in the back, where a skylight lets in wan afternoon light that barely penetrates the darkness below. The place has the same vaguely unsettling air as Drury’s books.
Drury’s fiction is perhaps best described as uncanny. The world of his new novel Pacific feels slightly off, as if the rules that govern our reality don’t apply there—at least not in the same way. Yet Drury is quick to point out that the precipitating events of the book are quite ordinary. Fourteen-year-old Micah Darling leaves Boris, the small Midwestern town where he grew up, to move to LA with his long-absent mother. His half-sister Lyris moves in with her journalist boyfriend, Albert. Dan Norman, the ex-sheriff who now works as a private investigator, goes looking for a client’s estranged daughter.
This is not the first time Drury has written about these characters. Two of his previous novels, The Driftless Area and The End of Vandalism also took place in the fictional Grouse County and featured many of the same faces. “I just wanted to know what they were up to. I like them. I always have,” he says. “You just want to see where their lives are.”
Drury’s own life helps inform these stories. He grew up in a tiny town in north central Iowa (population: 221) not that different from Boris, and later worked as journalist in the only slightly larger Danbury, Connecticut. The character of Albert shares some of Drury’s experiences with that job (including his habit of driving around town to look for interesting stories). Drury also got a lot of practice listening to how people talk—an experience that has informed the unique cadence of his dialogue.
He eventually left small towns behind, and spent the last few years in L.A., which serves as the backdrop for half of Pacific’s action. Writing about such a large city represents a significant departure for Drury, but he wanted to correct what he saw as misconceptions about the city. “Los Angeles really surprised me. It seems to me in the country at large you don’t hear a lot of good things about Los Angeles,” he says. “I really expected when I got there that it would just be parking lots for hundreds of miles. And I thought that the smog would be something tangible in the air before you like some kind of smoke that you could see.” He thought the city would be an especially fun place to be a kid, which inspired Micah’s adventures roaming the city.
The two parallel narratives barely overlap. As Drury puts it, the story is “only things that are happening to related people.” He wants the lives of his characters to resemble those of real people, and that means they’re more invested in their own lives than what’s happening halfway across the country. He doesn’t want to worry about having a standard structure either, abandoning the classic progression from introduction to climax to dénouement for a more life-like meandering.
However, Pacific is hardly realistic in the typical sense. Drury is purposefully vague about many of the details and those specifics that do appear are mostly made-up (though they sound real: Micah’s school is called Deep Rock Academy and his mother’s TV show is Forensic Mystic). But he does include details he finds meaningful—many of which are drawn from his memory. “I think when you’re a child you see better, and you retain better,” he says. “There’s a connection between those things that have been so long remembered and the core of what you have to say.”
Making the book even stranger is the presence of one Sandra Zulma, who is searching for a magical Celtic stone. She sweeps through Grouse County, causing trouble for all of its residents as her actions become increasingly erratic. Drury drew inspiration for Sandra from Yeats’ Mythologies and the epic poem Táin Bó Cúailnge, but wanted to focus on how the other, ordinary characters would react to her. “I just love that ability for a matter-of-fact story to include elements of the not provably real in almost a casual way,” he says. “As something you’d encounter and deal with, just like, say, a flat tire.”
Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in New York. You can find her on Twitter @lexeh.