Reviewed by Naben Ruthnum
Thom Vernon opens The Drifts with a quotation from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. This is a bravura move reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s decision to open Saturday with an epigraph culled from Bellow’s Herzog. In both cases, whether intentionally or not, the author has set himself the challenge of creating a text that can stand alongside the work of a canonized master whose influence can be found on every page of the book to follow. The scope of Thom Vernon’s ambition is clear, and his deployment of unconventional narrative techniques results in an elaborate portrait of sexual and emotional longing in rural Arkansas. Vernon recasts political struggles of gender and identity as emotional conflicts between and within his central characters, with the tormented, transgendered Dol emerging as the most striking exponent of Vernon’s masterful use.
The four characters pushing through The Drifts are struggling for control of bodies and lives—their own bodies and lives, and the bodies and lives of others. Julie is the middle-aged wife of Charlie. At forty-six, she is pregnant for the third time, and the pregnancy is unwelcome. Charlie is a plainspoken man with conflicting, frustrated desires; while he longs to be a father once again, he is unwilling to re-commit to his wife and surrender his attachment to his best friend, Wilson. Wilson is a woman who has constantly been mocked for her mannish frame—her wide shoulders and pronounced gut provoke Julie’s derision, especially after she discovers that Wilson and her husband have been having an affair. Wilson terminates this affair when she determines that Dol is her “one true love” (31), establishing the complicated dynamics of the overlapping love affairs that shape the plot.
Each chapter of The Drifts is focalized through one of the central characters. Julie’s chapters, in which she deliberates terminating her pregnancy, are narrated in the first person. Vernon establishes the poetically altered rendition of rural Arkansas slang that will form the linguistic world of the novel in Julie’s first words, which open the novel: “The glass went brittle when the sun set. Sullen night was bearing down and the shadows were inching towards the light. A numbness’d set on everything the way it does when weather’s coming. Charlie’d better’d get his raggedy tuckus back in this house and plant hisself down on that sofa was what was on my mind” (7). Vernon’s admirable avoidance of cliché occasionally leads him into strained descriptions and formulations, such as Julie’s description of Wilson as “that side of a house prettied up like a caboose with gazooms” (13). Referring to the circumstances leading to her unwanted pregnancy, Julie claims “I wouldn’t have even been in this Vlasic jar if it weren’t for that calf” (90). In this particular instance, Vernon’s insistence on avoiding the word “pickle” rankles; the cleverness of the prose distracts from the character’s circumstances and the urgency of her thoughts and situation. Thankfully, Vernon usually manages to avoid these false steps in his prose.
In the chapters that follow Wilson, the point-of-view switches to limited third-person. Vernon makes excellent use of the mode to establish Wilson as the most compassionate and selfless of the characters, whose devotion to Dol emerges as a single-minded quest to obtain gender-reassignment surgery for this friend that she loves. Vernon takes advantage of this portion of the narrative to link the lives of his characters to the greater political struggles surrounding them and informing their actions; he targets the coldness of the HMO system in America, with its homophobic insurance companies, and the shifty practices of certain doctors, including the ones populating The Drifts. Dol’s chapters are recounted in the second person, a mode that reinforces the sense that Dol is inevitably driven toward a certain fate—each action she takes or considers emerges as a near-order in the narrative, an instruction as to what she will be forced to do next. The majority of the characters cannot see Dol as she wishes to be seen, either calling her “Walter” or reducing her to a sordid sex object. Vernon’s second-person narrative technique reflects these social strictures by emphasizing Dol’s lack of agency in a world in which she is reliant on “orders” of every sort—the social order, and the demands that are placed on a transgendered outsider who must attempt to conform in some manner, if she is to achieve her dream of gender reassignment surgery.
Vernon’s book is both contemplative and urgent, and a reminder that complex issues of gender and sexuality are by no means restricted to the urban landscape, either in literature or in life. His epigraphic tip-of-the-hat to Faulkner is upheld by his sensitive but unflinching treatment of his characters and their lives, and by his commitment to an original, rhythmic prose style.
At press time: Naben Ruthnum recently completed his M.A. in English at McGill.