The Drifts by Thom Vernon
Coach House Books, 2010
Arkansas. December. The snow begins falling and quickly deepens into drifts. Next thing you know a whole lot has happened in not much more than two hours. In fiction, as in life, it’s amazing what can occur between, say, the hours of 6:26 p.m and 8:58 p.m on a frigid winter evening. This is especially true if spent in the company of four human wrecks who have reached the pinnacle of nervousness, all bound irrevocably down the cold, bitter road to Knowledge. Which is to say, they will know a lot more about themselves (and each other) at the end of the evening than they did at the beginning. As will we. Bundle up, dear reader, and pull that toque right down over your ears.
Remember Edward Albee’s two hair-raising couples in his 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Meet Julie and Charlie, and Wilson and Dol — different, most certainly, but nevertheless they too are reminders of the riveting, strangely poignant quality of the momentarily and fantastically deranged, at least when rendered in fiction. Possibly the softer, deranger, implying extreme disorder rather than outright insanity, might be more accurate here. But regardless, Thom Vernon’s The Drifts depicts the madness of violent transition enroute, one hopes, to some semblance of personal integration, as scarred as that unity may end up being.
But that’s later, after we learn all about the brutal disorder of not only stepping out of line, but refusing to line up in the first place.
The Drifts, is a story told in four voices. The first voice we hear is Julie Ceame’s. Married to “Ol’Charlie” for 25 years, and with two teen daughters who have recently lit out for Hollywood, Julie finds she is pregnant again three months after a thoroughly-decribed act of … but here I must quote Julie herself, as she begins to sense the force of raw, sexual Ooomph at some distance: “A man and a woman don’t have to be near each other for that beast kind of thing to lurch up.” Suffice to say the beast lurches up alright, and has its very evocative way with Ol’ Charlie and Julie (especially Julie, it seems to me) all over the funky (the original meaning of the term) shag rug. A brief digression here: Will someone please tell me once and for all whether it is in fact possible for a penis to find its way through the womb and into the “belly,” as clearly indicated, without culminating in a 911 emergency? Wouldn’t that smart at least as much as mangling your own penis, for instance? But more on that later.
The second voice we hear, stream-of-consciousness in style, belongs to Charlie himself, who has taken to bunking down in the barn with a calf that he recently rescued from slaughter. On being informed of Julie’s pregnancy, his mandate becomes dissuading her from going through with the abortion she fervently intends. His displeasure is conveyed (or not) mostly via rants kept sealed up tight within the confines of his own head, while placing the responsibility for the apparent ready availability of abortions themselves squarely at the feet of Jane Fonda. Throughout, he also deals with impending layoffs at work, as well as the quest for a certain ring required by his co-worker, friend, sometime lover, and owner of the salvaged calf, Wilson, a woman whose over-all appearance and style means she will constantly be mistaken for a dude, which is okay with her.
Dol, also distantly known as Walter, is the object of Wilson’s affection and the intended recipient of the engagement ring. Dol has two children and is married to Elaine, until she discovers him in full make-up (well, not full but close enough) at the Motel 8 and abruptly leaves him and the two children for Jesus. Dol forges on, often quoting the views of writer H.L. Mencken (who, by the way, once referred to Arkansas as “the apex of moronia.”) There are references to the writer/satirist’s views sprinkled throughout the novel. Dol, still too much Walter for his own taste, desperately hopes to procure the sexual reassignment procedure he has ached for all his life, but the company insurance policy has become suspiciously compromised and the surgery seems hopelessly imperiled.
And this brings us back to the whole topic of the endangered penis, as I promised earlier. But it strikes me now that such things are better left to the author to tell you about, so I will just say: The Drifts is an engaging, boisterous tale of four people making their ways through some pretty deep drifts in some biting weather (one of them in a blonde wig and high heels) while asking some possibly fathomless questions: What is a man? What is a woman? Is a man without a penis a woman? Can a woman without a penis be … etc? I leave you with four words for four wounded voices: Funny. Tragic. Arkansas. December.
Your penis is the creator of your womanhood. The hatred of your penis is the root of your femininity, it is your noise rooted in silence. Can who you are be created by who you are not? The rush of sounds is the truth becoming. Sometimes you’ve had visions of the spongy, chicken-skinned flesh peeling away to fall into a crystal-clear stream in the mountains, like what there must be out in Colorado or L.A., the way it must have been when man first got there. Hatred for your penis wears the stone on which it falls, leaving a concavity for your sex. What is left behind is a hollowed-out space for you — woman. Although it was not always so, your sex is made clear by what it is not. (p.105)
Brenda Brooks is the author of Gotta Find Me An Angel, and two collections of poetry.