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If you appreciate Carson McCuller's classic debut novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, you must read Thom Vernon's The Drifts. This magnificent first novel by this U.S.-born, Toronto-based actor-turned-writer offers up jaded Southern Gothic characters without the sweltering heat. In this contemporary take on inconsolable misfits, four eccentric characters compete for narrative dominance in this riveting account of small-town life in the socially conservative U.S. South.

The action takes place as a massive snowstorm blows into Bay, Ark. Julie is angry (and pregnant) by her husband, Charlie. Charlie is having an affair with Wilson but wants Julie to keep the baby. Wilson, a compassionate woman shaped like a Maytag, is besotted with her childhood pal, Dol, who spends a lot of time putting on eyeliner for his job at Ayers' bar. Dol just wants a sexual reassignment, but his HMO won't cover it. The ongoing tension between "having" and "wanting" is what drives this narrative forward.

Initially, I was put off by the broken Southern dialect the characters share, yet after the first 20 pages I was so immersed in their engaging stories that I adapted to their colloquial dropped "g" and twisted verbiage. Broken English aside, these lonely and flawed characters are perfectly dissatisfied and deliciously delusional. Their romantic yearnings add depth and authenticity to the narrative. Each botched bar-stool conversation, ill-timed marriage proposal and tense doctor-patient consultation speaks to the frustration and pain of their mundane lives.

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Vernon is very adept with his succinct depictions of domestic dissatisfaction. The unhappy yet protracted marriage between Julie and Charlie is summed up with Charlie's harsh assessment of Julie's cooking: "She couldn't keep a green bean from goin' limp if her life depended on it."

The key characters - Julie, Charlie, Wilson and Dol - take turns at the narrative helm. I'm always drawn to the intimacy of a first-person narrator, and Vernon moves frequently between voices but does not skimp on familiarity. In this multilayered melodrama, the alert reader gets to interpret the unfolding narrative from each person's unique, awkward and self-serving perspective. As the drama swiftly progresses, the characters' layered histories unfold, intersect and collide.

To add to the sense of intimacy, the small-town setting provides proximity, intensity, layering and claustrophobia. Everybody knows everyone else's business, so the characters' urges and long-standing grudges are well defined by the time the action reaches a crisis point, three-quarters of the way through Vernon's novel.

The most compelling part of this novel is the psychic pain experienced by Dol while he navigates the homophobic straight world. The urgency and necessity of Dol's gender reassignment dilemma is heart-rending. Vernon captures the despair and isolation of "a body craving change and a voice that can't" with clarity, dexterity and sensitivity.

Yet Dol isn't the only one suffering in this story, and his desire to be a woman is perceived as assuming an added burden by the overwrought Julie. Julie confesses her mixed feelings about womanhood while she has a strained conversation over too many barbecue-party beers with her nemesis, Wilson.

It's not about the body parts, Julie explains: "Nah, it's the stuff your mama teaches you. How not to take up space. Look away when a boy looks at you. Spend every minute of every day of your life thinkin' about how other people see you, every minute of every muckin' day thinkin' what somebody else needs, and when you get an extra minute to yourself, you can just think about how that's affectin' other people."

Vernon has a masterful ability to develop and shape authentic characters trapped by identity, betrayal, geography and love. Each chapter carefully and skillfully reveals new facts and fresh interpretations, providing dimension and depth to this tale of woe. Each event in the story builds on the next and the tension mounts as revelations, betrayals, manipulations and unrealistic expectations lead up to a gut-wrenching conclusion.

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The Drifts is anything but adrift. It's poignant, forceful, compelling, suspenseful and wry. Vernon is a gifted storyteller with an aptitude for psychological realism. This fine book is a distinct contribution to CanLit and a great contemporary twist on the Southern Gothic tradition.

Writer Patricia Dawn Robertson lives in small-town Saskatchewan.

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