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Wednesday, July 21,2010

A moo-ving tale

Former Lansing author works unusual twists into ’The Drifts’

by Bill Castanier

Author Thom Vernon injected several unusual twists into what could be considered a typical dysfunctional family novel: The cover of “The Drifts,” which features a photo of a pretty doe-faced calf, should be a tip off.


This book is not about animal husbandry, even though an animal and a husband are central characters in Vernon’s first book — and an active part of one of the love triangles.


Vernon is originally from Lansing and now lives in Toronto. He’ll read from his novel at Schuler Books and Music on July 29.


Some of the plotlines may be over the top, but Vernon uses them to convey the central themes of stereotyping, outsiders and survival. The book, set in rural Arkansas during a blizzard, finds the characters not only confronting their demons, but also committing acts of violence.


“The book is basically about how hard people will fight to get what they want,” Vernon said.


There’s Julie, the middle-aged pregnant housewife; Charlie, her husband, with an atypical lover; Wilson, a factory worker who had an affair with Charlie, but now finds she is in love with the transvestite Dol, who can’t afford a sex change. And then there’s the cow.


According to Vernon, the characters aren’t all that likeable and the situations they deal with aren’t very much fun, either. Abortion, job loss, cheating spouses and a failing health care system all find their way into the action. Maybe that’s what makes them so nasty.


“The themes so much come out of gender roles and the struggles they have creating the life they want,” Vernon said.


Not only is the plot of “The Drift” unusual, its complexity is compounded by Vernon’s use of first-, second- and thirdperson voices, along with unusual punctuation. In Charlie’s case, punctuation is nearly non-existent. His dialogue just runs on.


“If you put periods in there you keep the reader out,” Vernon said. “When people are angry, they just run on.”


Vernon’s manipulation of traditional punctuation is not unpleasant and the regional dialogue he uses is believable. His writing becomes a blend of his favorite writer, Proust, with Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for flavor.


Since his book is set in Arkansas and is filled with dark, brooding characters who, as Vernon says, “do pretty dreadful things,” it’s not unexpected that the writing style and themes also draw heavily on the short story writer Flannery O’ Connor, who was noted for creating what is called “Southern grotesque” writing.


How Vernon got to Toronto from Lansing is almost as unusual as his book. While in Lansing he was active in the Okemos Barn Theatre and the Lansing Civic Players. After stops at Michigan Technological Institute and Michigan State University, Vernon made his way to Chicago to study theater and then moved to Los Angeles, where he appeared in films like “The Fugitive” and in the TV series “Seinfeld” and “Grace Under Fire.”


By the time his acting career was getting underway, Vernon said he became bored and, in 1994, he turned to writing. He also met his partner, Vinjab, in Los Angeles in 2000, and that’s where the long path to Canada began.


Vinjab is from Zimbabwe and was not a U.S. citizen. After Sept. 11, Vernon said it became very difficult for Vinjab to stay in the country and, since the U.S. doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages for naturalization purposes, they looked elsewhere. In 2005, Vinjab was accepted as a refugee by Canada. Vernon — who calls himself a “queer refugee” — moved to Canada the following year.


Vernon said the themes in “The Drifts” reflect many of the battles he has had to fight to find a home for himself and his partner. He believes his book includes messages about human rights, gender and identity and queer rights.


Vernon got his master’s at the University of Southern California, whose writing program taught him to stay out of the story. “It’s not my job to approve or disapprove, but rather to let the readers enter the situations.”


Vernon said there are several things he wants to do when he returns home to Lansing for a visit.


“I want to run on the Riverwalk,” he said. “It’s just beautiful. And walk in Scott’s Woods and go to a Lugnuts game.” He said he remembers when Trammp’s Disco was located on the site of the new stadium.


Vernon said his siblings in Lansing have read the book and, although the book is not autobiographical, it does contain some situations his family recognizes.


“I am me,” he said. “I am who I come from.”


Thom Vernon


7 p.m. Thursday, July 29 Schuler Books & Music 2820 Towne Center Blvd., Lansing www.thomvernon.com americanrefugee.wordpress.com

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