The last book I loved was Hunts In Dreams by Tom Drury. Here’s the first sentence: “The man behind the counter of the gun shop did not understand what Charles wanted, and so he summoned his sister from the back room, and she did not understand either.” And this is kind of how the book is. Its characters live in overlapping worlds that, while sharing common elements, are separated by certain incommunicable, private concerns and motivations.
Hunts In Dreams follows four characters—a family—in alternating chapters. Charles, the father/husband, is trying to recover a rifle important to his understanding of the past. Joan, the mother/wife, is bored with her family life, and we see her have an affair. Micah, the son/brother, gets a goat or something, prowls the town, and Lyris, the daughter/sister, gets into a vaguely menacing, sexually charged situation with a kid from town who’s into knives.
The chapters aren’t exclusively “about” the character whose name acts as their titles, and this fact pleasantly dislodges a good deal of the action, letting the reader almost free-associate the meanings of various scenes, in which tertiary characters often interact, the primary character listening in, waiting for his or her turn, or just lurking. In a recent Bookworm interview with Mary Gaitskill, Michael Silverblatt argues that Gaitskill utilizes a deep sensitivity to objects in her stories, letting the physicality of her settings speak for her characters in a way that’s both profound and out of vogue today. If Gaitskill does this with objects, I might say that Drury does this with peripheral characters. The host of people who populate the small town of Boris—which serves as the primary setting for the novel—are drawn with depth, economy, and most of all, sympathy. But the structure of the text insists that these people act in some way as extensions or comments on the more central characters.
Hunts In Dreams sits safely within the realist, pastoral genre, and like many others in this category, it’s strange. Drury is perhaps a scrappier, less self-indulgent Richard Russo with undertones of David Lynch. As in Russo’s work, Hunts In Dreams exhibits a strong element of situational comedy. But Drury’s timing is perfect, and despite working on a large canvas, he’s at heart, like Lynch might be, a miniaturist. He knows just when to end a scene, and he does so often; the chapters are short, and each chapter is broken into even shorter sections, so there’s a constant, rhythmic lurching forward and backward in time, like a rolling oval. Impressively, he’s able to build up and release pressure in interesting ways using this narrative strategy. Furthermore, each section almost acts as its own stand-alone, beautifully rendered scene. They remind me, in fact, of a number of the newer writers working in flash fiction today: Kim Chinquee, Elizabeth Ellen, Aaron Burch and others, all of whom seem determined to create the perfect lived moment in time.
Tao Lin recently wrote about Joy Williams in this column, and I’d say that some of what he says about Williams and Lorrie Moore is true about Drury—I’d put them in a similar camp—but Drury uses far less irony (which I found, upon discovering him, unexpectedly refreshing). His characters often make strange decisions, and you feel that they’re coasting a bit through life, but they also care deeply about one another—perhaps in the place of caring about themselves—and this comes across in most cases (in another book, The Black Brook, there are a few gangster characters which seem to border on caricature).
In the end, Hunts In Dreams is not a particularly deep book. But it’s rich, strange, comforting and sad all at once. If it were a day, it would occur toward the end of spring, when it’s beginning to get hot, and you’re glancing up through a tree overhead, at the full summer leaves, at the light filtering through, and are momentarily blinded by a ray of sunlight shooting through, which makes you forget, for a second, that you’re speaking to your neighbor, who you don’t know well, despite having lived next door to him for years, about the poisonous snake he found in the garden that morning, and killed with a spade.