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book review

‘The End of Vandalism’ a novel about democracy

President Obama, Vice President Biden, Mr. Chief Justice, reverend clergy, fellow citizens:

We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of literature. For I swear before you and Almighty God a solemn oath: Tom Drury’s 1994 novel, “The End of Vandalism,” is the best comic novel about democracy of the last quarter-century.

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The world is very different now. Man holds in his mortal hands a Kindle that possesses the power to download thousands of books from a mysterious cloud. And yet the same principles by which our forefathers judged the worthiness of literature are still at issue: It should make you laugh and punch you in the gut with the strength of the hand of God.

We dare not forget “The End of Vandalism,” a screamingly funny book that accomplishes both of these things. Even the names of the 10 tiny farming towns in the fictional Wisconsin county where the book is set are funny: Boris, Grafton, Romlya, Stone City, Chesley, Pinville, Morrisvile, Mixerton, Lunenberg, and Wylie. Their denizens are real Americans: hearty Midwesterners humbled by abysmal winters, proud of their work ethic, and unwilling to suffer fools.

Let every reader know of Grouse County Sheriff Dan Norman, a quiet, solid sort whose primary duties involve breaking up bar fights and shooing teenagers off the top of the water tower. He has been sheriff for as long as anyone can remember. But one November, Dan is challenged by a recovering alcoholic named Johnny White.

Change comes rarely in Grouse County, and at first Dan isn’t worried. He is a fine citizen, well-liked, and good at his job. But soon White’s large advertising budget turns him into a worthy adversary. White’s a schemer with children who despise him and whom he trots out for press conferences, then sends away. He burns a goose at a homeless shelter and cries on television. He has “an indignant, cheated style that appealed to some.”

My fellow citizens of the world: Is this not so very true to life? Doesn’t it seem that beneath every purple mountain, behind each amber wave of grain hides an angry weirdo running for office for no other reason than to appease some strangling need deep within his clammy, fetid soul?

With a chuckle our only sure reward, let us go forth to read about a better version of the land we love.

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Sheriff Dan isn’t like that. He is too busy doing his job to worry about politics. But then, improbably, he sows the seeds for his own betrayal when he says the wrong thing at a duck hunt. And like every American at one time or another, he is forced to act: “Sheriff Dan Norman, in street clothes, painted campaign signs in his office on the Saturday night before the election. . . The signs were nothing fancy. They said things like DAN NORMAN IS ALL RIGHT and VOTE EXPERIENCE VOTE DAN. The idea was simply to get his name out there.’’

In the end, fairness prevails — this is Wisconsin, after all. “[White’s ] theme, that Dan had been a do-nothing sheriff, did not sway many voters, who for the most part were not looking for a keyed-up or hyperactive sheriff.” In the end, Dan beats White by 337 votes, and everything goes back to normal.

One of the reasons “The End of Vandalism” is so very funny is because, in the real world, we suspect that White probably would win. With a chuckle our only sure reward, let us go forth to read about a better version of the land we love, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Now the trumpet summons us to our local independent bookstore.

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson@gmail.com.
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