Tag: 2019 TBR Challenge

Love & Fate in Tom Drury’s “The Driftless Area”

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Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo?  Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery?  And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean?  It’s embarrassing to admit —  but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art.  Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.”  Oops!  My bad!  To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.”  At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013.  All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges!  Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room.  And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.

The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise.  The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin).  Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest.  I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem.  Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read.  And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives.  A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come.  Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.

One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes.  Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize.  On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not.  The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done).  Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level.  As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were.  In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.

Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious?  Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either.  The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds.  Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences.  One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover.  Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains.  Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way.  He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).

In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely.  Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you?  Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers?  Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange?  Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”?  If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it!  You’ll love this book as much as I did.

My TBR Pile Just Became a Little Lighter …

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Alice Greenway’s White Ghost Girls is a skinny little novel (scarcely more than a novella) that has taken me almost seventeen (!!!!) years to read.  If I hadn’t decided to participate in the 2019 TBR Challenge, in fact, it might have languished on the shelf for another decade, or never have been read at all, which would be a shame.  For all its brevity, Greenway’s beautifully written novel packs quite a punch.  Despite my great delay in getting to it (I always meant to read it!) I am happy to have selected it as my first 2019 TBR Challenge read!

Greenway’s novel could be categorized in a number of equally accurate ways.  Ghost Girls is a debut novel and, like many such, is also a coming of age tale.  Most reviewers stopped there.  In my mind, however, this tale of an expatriate American family living in Hong Kong also falls into the “innocent Americans abroad in a dangerous world” category, a variation on the well-beloved 19th century trope of naive Americans entrapped by an older & exotic culture.  On a very mundane level, Ghost Girls also concerns a dysfunctional family (dysfunctional family novels are one of my favorite literary sub-genres).  Its Hong Kong setting, described in lovely, lyrical prose, also places the novel in that group of books that you might pick up for an afternoon’s mini-vacation in an exotic locale.  The novel is also a study, brief but concentrated, of loss and memory.  Finally, although I don’t think Greenway intended it as such, her novel is a bit of a period piece.  Its action takes place in 1967, when America’s adventure in Vietnam was at its tragic height and Mao’s Red Guards are fomenting unrest in Hong Kong in a process that will eventually see the end of British rule over the crown colony.  Both these political events determine the lives of Greenway’s characters and her depiction of them adds a great deal to the novel’s atmosphere.

It is the summer of 1967 and the news is filled with images of the war that is raging in southeast Asia.  The family’s father is a photographer for Time Magazine, assigned to cover the war.  While he works on assignment in Vietnam, his wife Marianne and his two daughters, Frankie and Kate, live in Hong Kong where they await his occasional visits from the war zone.  It’s one of the novel’s ironies that Hong Kong, chosen as a safe refuge from war, is itself descending into intense street violence brought about by clashes between police and communist demonstrators.  During her husband’s absence Marianne uses the charms and comforts of the colony’s British elite (Sunday luncheon, anyone, or perhaps tea?) to barricade herself against the violence and her fear; an artist, she also immerses herself in painting charming water colors of an idyllic, imaginary China that never existed.  Twelve year old Kate and her older sister Frankie are left largely to Ah Bing, the family’s Chinese nanny and house keeper; they are her gwaimui, or white ghost girls (on occasion, she also refers to them as houh hoi, or “little whores.”  Marianne is oblivious.)  The combination of an unreachable mother, and a father becoming increasingly addicted to the lure of Vietnam and the adrenaline of war, mean the two girls essentially navigate adolescence and the street dangers created by political turmoil on their own.

The story is told in the first person, from the perspective of the adult Kate, who is remembering the events of her family’s last summer together.  It is clear from the opening page that something terrible will happen to Frankie; the novel’s suspense lies in learning the precise form the catastrophe will assume and how it will occur.  As with any first person account, the reader has to judge for herself the reliability of the narrator, a point that Kate herself raises rather obliquely midway through the novel.  Greenway uses beautiful, lyrical prose to contrast the innocence of late childhood with the growing menace surrounding Kate and Frankie.  When the act occurs that sets in motion the novel’s horrifying climax, we see it as twelve year old Kate sees it, half comprehending, half not.

Greenway is particularly good at family dynamics.  Kate and Frankie are studies in contrasts.  Frankie is voluptuous and rebellious; as the older sister she is bigger, stronger and faster; she is also more emotionally needy and feels she must come first in any situation. Kate is younger; more boyish; quieter and observant; it is Kate who sees the fractures in the family’s relationships and feels responsible for mending them.  Despite their differences, the sisters have a close relationship but one that begins to fray over the course of that fateful summer.  Although it is hardly the dominant strain in the novel, Greenway skillfully depicts the struggle each girl wages with the other and with their mother for the father’s attention on the rare occasions when he is physically with his family.

A note about the artwork, for the visually minded out there.  The artist is George Chinnery, who was active in the second quarter of the 19th century and spent much of his life along what was then called the “China Coast.” Chinnery, a contemporary of the far more famous J.M.W. Turner, was the only western painter resident in south China during this period. Because Chinnery spent only a limited amount of time in Hong Kong itself, the painting actually portrays a panoramic view of Macau, at the time a more important city located about 40 miles to the southwest.  At one point in the novel, Kate attempts to understand her emotionally aloof and distant mother by examining her mother’s art.  Kate describes her mother’s paintings as “nostalgic, suggestive” of a nineteenth century Hong Kong, similar to “the playful sketches of George Chinnery’s depictions” of “the faded charm of nearby Macau.”  While I may have cheated a bit by using a 19th century painting of Macau to illustrate a 20th century novel set in Hong Kong, Greenway gives me some support for doing so!

Although I wasn’t quite as taken with this novel as many reviewers (I think it was long-listed for the Orange Prize, or some such) it was definitely worth reading on both stylistic and substantive grounds.  I’d especially recommend it for readers who enjoy beautiful lyrical language, atmosphere and exotic settings in their novels.