Hunts in Dreams
Tom Drury
Houghton Mifflin, $22 (cloth)

Eating Naked
Stephen Dobyns
Metropolitan Books, $23 (cloth)

Tom Drury’s delightful third novel is little only in page count. Its theme is large: life in the provinces, with subthemes of marriage, parenthood, and love. The title, Hunts in Dreams, comes from a poem by Tennyson (Like a dog, he hunts in dreams, and thou art staring at the wall, / Where the dying night-lamp flickers, and the shadows rise and fall), but the atmosphere of the book has none of Tennyson’s noble, hifalutin solemnity. In truth, with its dissatisfied, yearning provincials and undertones of laconic irony, this Midwestern comedy of manners has more than a touch of Chekhov, or Goncharov, or another of the gentler Russians.

The characters of Hunts in Dreams, all residents of (aha!) Boris, a remote township somewhere on the endless steppes of the Midwest, exist at one remove from the clamor and temptations of the larger metropolitan world and its culture, echoes of which occasionally filter through the gauzy screen of distance: "Who’s Montaigne?" a character asks. "Some thinker of great degree, from the sound of it."

The first speaker here is the novel’s main character, Charles Darling. Charles is a plumber who happens to be a bit of a brooding dreamer in the Chekhovian style. He is mismarried to Joan, a once and future actress ("she had the requisite ability to set aside the past in favor of any given scenario") turned evangelist and animal-rights crusader. Spurred on by an adulterous affair long in the making, she leaves home, family be damned, and ends up treading the boards in a small-town production of "The Seagull." Charles is disappointed, but he’s been uneasy about his marriage for a long time. He comes to regard Joan with the wariness of a stranger as it gradually dawns on him–and such revelations aren’t unknown to spouses of long standing–that he doesn’t really know her. When she leaves, he resigns himself to her fugue as if it were his penance for past sins, crediting her, accurately, with ambitions and abilities beyond the scope of his own: "Life mattered more to Joan than it did to him. She thought there was a meaning she must track down."

What makes Charles appealing, despite his dreaminess and manifest incompetence as a husband and father, is his Midwestern grit, and the fact that he never sinks into self-pity. He has too much real life to deal with to spare any time for weltschmerz. Apart from an errant wife, he has an unrewarding job, a restless eight-year-old son, an even more restless brother with a penchant for underage girlfriends, and a sixteen-year-old stepdaughter (Joan’s abandoned daughter from her first marriage) with the splendidly Bohemian name of Lyris. Lyris has just arrived from a series of foster homes, courtesy of the Home Bringers, who reunite adoptees with their natural parents. Charles sets about laboring mightily in Lyris’s behalf, striving to forge some kind of bond, trying to rebuild as a stepfather what he’s lost as a husband. Once he even lashes out at a local oddball who pitches half-hearted woo in Lyris’s direction, but the confrontation degenerates into farce in an entirely believable way, and Charles goes back to just muddling through.

Muddling through is pretty much his and his family’s modus operandi, anyway, and farce is never far off. Things stay the same until they change, which they do, when they do, with the suddenness of a Midwestern spring storm. Then life resumes its steady pace and plods on in Drury’s Boris as it does in provincial towns everywhere–in Ballycastle, in Chateauroux, in Saratov.

Despite its evocative languor, however, Drury’s Midwest is unmistakably of its time, marked by today’s quirks and tics. The local gas station, for instance, is managed by a man named Jim. Jim wears a badge that says:

I Am Empowered
To Serve

But if his customers need help, he tells them to call a toll-free number. His empowerment is an empty slogan, but it’s enough for him. In similar vein, Charles’s van bears the perky legend "Here Comes Charles the Plumber," as if anyone but Charles gave a damn, which he only just barely does. And in a close encounter with the seamy side of modern life, Joan, in the big city en route to her Chekhovian destiny, visits a clinic with her medical paramour and meets a teenager wounded in a shootout with his neighbors. Joan expresses the angst of the age: "‘What’s happened to the world…. What has it come to that children shoot one another and this is part of the everyday routine?’" The clinic’s director sums it up, tersely. "‘It’s TMFG, sis.’" TMFG? "Too many fucking guns."

Which brings us back to Charles. A gun that is both symbolic and real, his stepfather’s old .410 side-by-side shotgun, "made by Hutzel and Pfeil of Cincinnati," once a family heirloom, now the property of the local pastor’s widow, figures in the story from the beginning, reappearing prominently later on (as if in acknowledgment of Chekhov’s famous dictum that a gun seen in Act One must go off by Act Three) when Charles essays another of his quixotic forays to reclaim what he sees as his family’s rightful property, and by extension his self-respect. He succeeds, after a fashion, farcically and at some cost to his dignity; but he’s used to that. He cheerfully shakes off the experience, like a dog shaking off water, and trundles off in his van to muddle through another day, showing the sign on the back of his truck, "There Goes Charles the Plumber."

The British literary magazine Granta named Drury, the author of two other novels, a winner of its "Best Young American Novelists" competition. He may well deserve the accolade. His characters ring true, and he has a rare touch with the not-so-obvious angle, the details outside the frame. Few other writers I can think of could get me to do a double-take over a description of something as banal as a road map:

His map of the Midwest was outdated, faded, splitting along the folds. It depicted long-finished highways as broken blue lines that suggested a bright future for driving.

Writing like that suggests a bright future for Tom Drury.

• • •

In the title story of this collection of sixteen stories–Stephen Dobyns’s first, after a distinguished career as a novelist and poet–Bob, whose marriage is unravelling (marriages unravel like cheap socks in these tales), hits a deer on his way home. In turn he is nearly hit by a car driven by a distracted young woman who totals her car against a tree instead. Bob gives her and the dead deer a ride to her boyfriend’s house, and all three wind up dining naked together on venison steak. Long afterward, Bob recalls the experience: "[A]s the details of the evening continued to blur, what Bob remembered most clearly was how the girl’s breasts had pointed in slightly different directions." In another story, "A Happy Vacancy," an insufficiently sedated pig falls out of a helicopter transporting him to a movie set and lands on an eminent poet of serious mien crossing Harvard Square six hundred feet below. "PLUMMETING PORKER PULVERIZES POET," blare the headlines. Naturally, the poet’s posthumous sales soar, making his widow rich; but she can never leave a crowded room again without half-hearing, half-imagining the sniggering that follows in her wake.

In "Part of the Story," 63-year-old Lily meets, for the first time, the five children she’d had by five different men over the years ("she hadn’t played the field, she’d played the county") and had long ago given up for adoption. On reunion day, with all her children due to meet at her trailer, her current light o’ love dies in the bedroom, on the job as it were. As the children arrive his corpse lies there, waiting to be discovered–which it is, naturally, in due course, with untypically upbeat results.

I say untypically upbeat because Stephen Dobyns almost gleefully imposes life’s unpredictability on his characters, who tend to be (except for one or two academics and literary types) Everyman and -woman to the point of near-banality, like Raymond Carver’s hapless souls, or Stephen King’s. In fact, the master of horror is a fan, judging by his admiring blurb for Dobyns’s novel The Church of Dead Girls, and reading this collection of stories I found myself oddly reminded, here and there, of King–not the ghouls and vampires, of course, but the ominous something lurking in the wings of skillfully evoked everyday settings. In King’s case the ominous is supernatural; in Dobyns’s it is the all-too-natural. Cancer ends a life in one story; a car crash does so in another. A kidnapping goes ludicrously wrong. People betray each other. Lust overrides good sense. Absurdity rules. Marriages fall apart with depressing regularity–and if yours doesn’t seem to be on the rocks, well, can you be sure you know what your better half’s up to when you’re away? Take the slam-bang opening of "With Franz and Jane":

Janet had seen herself as happily married, but in September Fred fell in love with a woman who sat across the aisle on the shuttle flying down to New York. They had started talking about golf, then moved on to contemporary poetry. When Fred returned to Boston two days later, Janet’s marriage was over.

A little far-fetched, you might say. And in truth, some of this is melodrama masquerading as realism, and it doesn’t work. In "Dead Men Don’t Need Safe Sex"–the title alone sets the mood all too well–George, whose wife is (naturally) cheating on him, puts on a rubber Jimmy Carter mask and kidnaps her. Believing his disguise to be foolproof, he pretends to be one of his own friends and interrogates her about their marriage, and finds out more about their twenty years together, and himself, in those few minutes than he’d have dreamed possible. Well, yes, it’s conceivable that things could happen that way, and nowhere does Dobyns fail to entertain. But I found the more outré pieces to be heightened conceits for the purpose of exaggerating life’s ordinary madness, less than convincing and decidedly inferior to the really outstanding stories in the collection, those in which Dobyns balances compassion, believability, and poignancy.

Such a story is "Some Changes Coming," in which Ralph, a bookish, well-meaning father, tries to distract Lemuel, his guilt-ridden twenty-year-old son, from the car accident–for which Lemuel was responsible–that killed the young man’s best friend six months before. Ralph tries everything: heart-to-heart talks, games, target practice, movies, drink, the opposite sex. Nothing seems to work:

Bobby’s death was like a wall that had been set across his life. He couldn’t get around it, couldn’t climb over it, couldn’t bust through it. He sat in the basement rec room on the old sofa and watched TV. It didn’t matter if the machine was on or off.

In the end, Ralph’s sole effective means of reconnecting with his son turns out to be nearly fatal. Ralph is a genuinely touching character, sincere, loving, and as good a father as he can be, which isn’t quite as good a father as he wants to be (the fathers among us will know the feeling). There are no carnival flourishes in this story. It rings true and clear, as does another little gem, "Kansas," a lyrical account, from the vantage point of a dying old man’s memory, of an incident on the dusty highways of Kansas long ago, when the protagonist, then an aspiring young musician shaking off the bonds of home and hearth, hitches a ride with a choleric farmer on a murderous mission, the outcome of which the musician never learns. Not knowing has haunted him all his life, and haunts him unto death. Then there is the sinister and (of course) slightly absurd Caspar, in "Devil’s Island," henpecked husband extraordinaire, who spends his free time in his basement making meticulously detailed scale models of the world’s great prisons: Sing Sing, Alcatraz, San Quentin, Devil’s Island. These are finely crafted, jarring stories that leave the reader with a sense of apprehension at the sheer craziness of what passes for everyday life. Dobyns at his best gives us a real chill when he lifts the curtain on what lies beyond, mixing weirdness and laughter with the panache of a Roald Dahl. Even in the lesser tales in this collection he entertains mightily, but the decor sometimes overwhelms the play.