Accident at the Sugar Beet was first published in the New Yorker and later became a part of Tom Drury’s first novel, The End of Vandalism. I find the title of the novel amusing because the story begins with a high school Louise Darling vandalizing the equipment of a football team. Research shows that this story is not the first chapter of the novel but it is instead the fourth. I have to imagine differently on how the novel opens as this story is a nice enough starter, with Louise, in her mid-thirties, looking back at that youthful mischief.
Louise, now recently divorced, delivers her mother’s venison to various townspeople, some of them we’ll never encounter again. This being the case, they are still given much life and thought. One of them is wondering about their church’s hymns. One is making jack-o-lanterns. One is figuring out why their horses are walking backward. Louise interacts with these people but she feels a sense of distance from them all.
Her mother urges Louise to go out with the town sheriff, Dan. She catches him on the television being interviewed, something about a baby left at the town grocery. She calls him after watching the show. From here on, they develop a promising romance. During this phase, we see some revealing character traits in Louise with the way she moves. It seems like she’s wrestling with a deep-seated restlessness inside her. There are times when she would sob uncontrollably at Dan, the latter almost clueless at how to make her stop.
The title refers to an accident that Dan responded to at one point in the story. It is only mentioned once. It makes the reader wonder why an event that doesn’t seem to be important and relevant to the characters would have the title. Are the things happening to Louise accidental? Or is there a grander design that is waiting to be spun, like an intricate and delicate spider’s web?
Speaking of spiderwebs, Dan mentions something about them in the television interview. Spiderwebs take too long to be created. The spider slowly goes back and forth to build webs, but then a single flick of something, like a hat, can easily destroy them.
The way the story ends is portentous but it doesn’t necessarily beg for a continuation. Louise sees strangers up to no good in the dark. She gets her dog and tells the pet to go get them and make her proud. With this story in consideration, I see the novel as a series of loosely related short stories, something like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. If that’s the case and if this economical yet vivid writing is sustained all throughout, I think I will like The End of Vandalism.
Listen to Antonya Nelson reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars