Great book titles are like miniature poems. They grab you, intrigue you, make you ask questions, all while encapsulating a complex story and characters in no more than five words (ideally in two or three).
The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury, has one of the best titles I’ve seen in a long time. I had a mental image of great white dunes of snow, blowing and drifting, except in a pristine green space somehow protected from the winter winds… Then I discovered what I ought to have known all along, that the Driftless Area is real.
It’s a region spanning parts of four midwestern states, which the glaciers of the Ice Age, for mysterious reasons of their own, completely avoided. When the glaciers receded, they scraped the surrounding areas into gentle, rolling hills. But the Driftless Area remained rather… jagged.
I lived for five years in Wisconsin, home of the Long-Suffering Husband, and never heard a whisper of the Driftless Area. But when I asked him, he knew all about it. It’s like a well-kept secret that the locals don’t mention to us East Coast types. Very Midwestern of them.
The book tells the story of Pierre Hunter, a young Midwestern man who is cast (yes) adrift after the deaths of his elderly parents. One day a beautiful woman named Stella saves him after he falls through the ice. How lucky that she was there! But soon we realize that luck had very little to do with it, and that Stella is both more and less than she seems. Meanwhile a thug ironically named “Shane” tracks down Pierre with intent to kill…
With its dry wit, mythic resonance and absurdist sensibility, this novella reminded me of a Coen brothers movie: Raising Arizona, perhaps, or Fargo. But the supernatural element and the sudden irruption of pure evil into a landscape of innocence made me think of Irish playwright Conor McPherson.
Tom Drury has gained a reputation as an American master who pens amusing, elegant stories about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. After reading this book, I can tell that were I to pick up any of his four other novels, I would find them equally intriguing, moving, and beautifully written.
Also, I’m a sucker for a book that includes a Yeats reference. In The Driftless Area, Pierre reads Yeats’ Stories of Red Hanrahan, in which a legendary Irish bard has dealings with women and the supernatural. Drury’s comment that “Lady Gregory helped him write it” steers the attentive reader to Yeats’ preface, which acknowledges that Lady Gregory brought his English “nearer to the tradition of the people among whom [Red Hanrahan], or some likeness of him, drifted and is remembered.”
Significant words indeed, even if the mythic substrate of the book seems to be Chinese folklore, referenced in the epigraph, a quote from Strange Stories From the Liao Chai. At one point Pierre, anticipating that Shane will soon catch up with him, takes martial arts lessons and discusses the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with his diminutive, Yoda-like teacher. The ultimate confrontation between Pierre and Shane, and its aftermath, includes entertaining echoes of that movie.
The Driftless Area is being made into a film. Anton Yelchin, best known for playing Pavel Chekov in the new Star Trek movies, will play the feckless but sweet and soulful Pierre.
Pierre had learned something in college that he always remembered, and this was that everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise. A professor with a prematurely bent posture and a white beard had said this about an ancient kingdom that had disappeared, and Pierre thought it was true of many things.
A simple example would be a fire, which burns the fuel that feeds it and goes out. Supposedly this would even happen to the sun. Or a hero, who rights some great wrong and finds that his services are no longer needed.
It was the only philosophy he had, although he was not sure it was philosophy.
In a brilliant bit of casting, Zooey Deschanel will be Stella Rosmarin, the otherworldly beauty who has an agenda Pierre never could have imagined.
She began coiling the rope and Pierre looked at the stake, which was a length of rebar with a red epoxy coating.
“Have you done this before?” he said.
“No, but I’ve thought about how I would.”
John Hawkes, who sometimes bears a striking resemblance to Sean Penn, has been well-cast as the criminal Shane.
“Give me the keys to your car. Don’t make me hit you with this rock.”
“You would do that?”
“Yeah, I would.”
“But how will I get home?”
“I don’t know. Christ, figure it out. You’ll walk, I imagine. Why is everyone always expecting me to take them somewhere?”
She got her ring of keys out and took the one for the car off and gave it to him. “What about this other guy, that was in the truck?”
“He’s dead. He doesn’t know it yet but he will.”
Frank Langella is on board, and his character has not been revealed. Perhaps Tim Geer, a mysterious colleague of Stella’s?
Also attached to the project is Ciarán Hinds. He will play Ned, one of Shane’s more unsavory associates.
I’ve just discovered (6/1) another member of the cast: the lovely Lucia Frangione who is an actor/playwright in the Vancouver area. Check out her charming story of working with Ciarán Hinds here. She plays the wife of his character.
My only complaint is that they are filming it in Vancouver BC instead of the Midwest where it is actually set. Outrageous! But this film will definitely be one to see.