The End of Vandalism
A famous cover of The New Yorker magazine, which has been enlarged, reproduced, and sold by the tens of thousands in poster shops, purports to show the typical New Yorker’s mental picture of the United States: Beyond the Hudson River there is little but wasteland. The magazine itself was originally intended to be by New Yorkers, for New Yorkers, and about New Yorkers. Readers living in the hinterlands could expect to have trouble understanding many of the cartoons and would always feel a little like Dorothy dreaming of the Emerald City of Oz.
Over the years, however, the publishers found themselves subjected to economic and demographic pressures that were impossible to ignore. For one thing, many of the better-educated, better-paid New Yorkers were no longer living in the big, noisy, crime-ridden, expensive city but had fled to greener pastures. In order to accommodate their readers—and especially the advertisers of luxury goods and services who made the slick, sophisticated magazine possible—the editors were forced to take an increasingly broader view.
So The New Yorker discovered America about five hundred years after Christopher Columbus did. It began publishing stories and articles about strange places like Ohio and Texas with the attitude of a classical music connoisseur discussing the earthiness and sincerity of Dixieland jazz or country and western.
Eleven chapters of Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism were published as separate stories in The New Yorker between 1990 and 1994. This is a remarkable achievement for the young author, considering that under the radical regime of Tina Brown, who took over as editor in 1992, the magazine has drastically reduced the number of stories it prints. At one time it was publishing more than 150 stories a year (on one historic occasion it devoted almost its entire May 4, 1957, issue to J. D. Salinger’s “Zooey.”)
The chapters of The End of Vandalism that originally appeared as separate stories belong to the school of minimalism, which The New Yorker has cultivated to such an extent that the school and the magazine are inseparably identified. Ann Beattie is the magazine’s most celebrated minimalist contributor. Her success is understandable because she writes about the kind of young, upwardly mobile Eastern urbanites who make up an important part of the readership. Before Raymond Carver’s tragic death from lung cancer in 1988, The New Yorker had begun publishing his stories, even though they were about people and places a continent away. Minimalism seems to have provided a sort of golden key of admission: It is as if the staff is willing to recognize the existence of intelligent life west of the Hudson as long as that life is as feckless and melancholy as life on the side with all the skyscrapers.
The New Yorker has another reason for favoring minimalism: Such stories are, almost by definition, exceptionally short. Many sound as if the beginning and ending had been lopped off by some junior editor whose job was to conserve space. For example, one of the chapters of Drury’s novel published in the November 19, 1990, issue under the title “The End of Vandalism” takes up only six pages of an issue that runs to 156 pages; it is the only story in the issue and shares those six pages with five large cartoons and a poem.
Grouse County is what New Yorkers would call “a good place to be from.” Drury provides a map of the 296-square-mile county which seems intended to emphasize its deadly dullness. Most of it is planted in corn that is used to fatten hogs. The names of the mythical towns seem to have been chosen to indicate the county’s insignificance: Names such as Pringmar, Pinville, Mixerton, Romyla, and Boris suggest a history that was never dramatic and has since become meaningless. Other features of this prairie county include the Rust River, the Lapoint Slough, and a number of gravel roads that cut through the landscape in uncompromising straight lines.
In an appendix the author lists the names and occupations of sixty-eight characters who appear in his book. The End of Vandalism has more characters than Count Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886), although it is less than a sixth as long. Drury’s novel has the feeling of a panorama staged at a state fair, where an actor representing Buffalo Bill might gallop through waving his buckskin hat. Characters seem to appear and disappear into the opposite wing without contributing anything more than a fleeting impression of what their lives must be like in this inglorious environment.
The End of Vandalism is the kind of modular novel a minimalist story writer often assembles when he feels compelled to produce a novel. One might...
(The entire section is 1987 words.)