It's tough to categorize Tom Drury's new novel, Pacific. It reminds me of other works I admire — the Cohen brothers' movies, Jim Harrison's comic novellas — yet it's entirely its own thing. The best label I can think of is that Pacific is magical realism for people who don't believe in such guff.
This is Drury's fifth novel and completes a trilogy (the first two were The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams) set in fictional Grouse County somewhere in the Midwest — Drury is an Iowa native. (Full disclosure: He was an editor for several years at the Times, where I knew him slightly.)
Parts of Pacific take place in Grouse County, in and around Stone City. As its title suggests, others take place in Los Angeles, where 14-year-old Micah Darling travels to be reunited with his mother, Joan Gower, who abandoned him and his father to pursue an acting career. Even earlier, she abandoned Micah's half-sister, Lyris, now grown up and living with a rookie reporter named Albert in Stone City, a happy relationship Lyris thinks of as "the best, the most bearable loneliness."
This family appeared in the first two books of the trilogy, but Pacific stands on its own as a tender, mysterious, deadpan funny story about finding and losing love. And maybe also about finding a long-lost stone once used by the Irish mythological hero Cuchulain.
That stone is the heart's desire of Sandra Zulma, who as a child in Grouse County immersed herself in Celtic legends, along with her best friend, Jack Snow. They're both back in town, she searching for the stone and once again practicing her sword-fighting skills, he running a sketchy business in what are probably fake artifacts.
Keeping an eye on Jack is Dan Norman, local sheriff turned private investigator, hired by the parents of Jack's girlfriend, Wendy. Dan's a stand-up guy whose wife, Louise, runs a quirky thrift store in Stone City. She lost her only child years ago and, when Lyris and Albert move into the apartment over the store, she finds herself furnishing it for them from her inventory in a kind of nesting behavior.
Louise can't seem to keep herself from helping out — when she sees a crow clipped by a bus in the street, she picks it up, "bobbing its head in disbelief, to be one moment flying and the next in a box," and takes it to the local twin veterinarians. (The bird doesn't make it, but the vets kindly take it to a taxidermist and bring it back to Louise.)
Micah's father, Tiny Darling (seriously), is mostly mooning around Stone City with little left to do now that his son is gone — an idle state that leads him to some odd behavior. Meanwhile, Micah is wandering Los Angeles like a Midwestern Alice in Wonderland, taken up by a group of older teens who lavish him with more sex, drugs and drink than may be good for a 14-year-old.
He falls in love with the charismatic equestrian Charlotte, who takes him to a party where they "made their way down a sandalwood walk lined with path lights and waxy plants.
"There were many people, a luminous blue swimming pool, and a bar. The skyscrapers of Los Angeles bent overhead in bands of light."
Micah revels in this Shangri-la, but he has no sense of how to navigate it. He gets little guidance from Joan, who's not much of a mother or wife — she has an affair because a fortune teller predicts it — and is stupendously self-absorbed.
When Joan is called to audition for a part and asked to undress in front of five men (for a role as a frontier wife!) she doesn't flinch but, like Sandra, sees herself in mythic terms: "She hadn't worked her body into this shape to be ashamed before filmmakers. She was the dream that troubled their sleep, lying ageless as they grew older and older."
The plot of Pacific weaves together strands of different stories, some transpiring in Stone City, others in Los Angeles, linking them gradually.
Occasionally the book is laugh-out-loud funny, as in this description of Tiny's mother visiting the cemetery: "She had three husbands buried there. She had never spoken well of them and said flowers were a small price to keep them where they belonged."
More often, though, its humor is sly, just as its magical elements are. When Drury gives something a possibly supernatural twist, it's slant and enigmatic like a fragment of dream, not some CGI fireworks show. The biggest magical mystery in Pacific turns out to be the human heart.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.