Reading the City

EVEN A DINKY TOWN like Portland, Oregon, is probably impossible to contain in a single book. With over two million people in the greater metro area, two major rivers converging, volcanoes and mountains rising behind multiethnic suburbs, generations of organic farmers, graphic designers, migrant workers, etc., living side by side, the city has at least a handful of stories to tell. When you consider that only about a million people were living in Paris while Balzac was writing the eighty-nine titles of the Comédie humaine, and only around three million were in London when Dickens died, I’d say it would probably take at least three books to plumb Portland’s full depths.

Among the many titles one could use to triangulate the city’s essence, I’d probably select Ramona Quimby, Age 8, by Beverly Cleary, as one of the fixed points. I don’t know if I even realized Cleary’s books took place in Portland when I first read them, in the early ’80s, as a kid recently relocated from California, but I must have recognized something in the their muted light and halcyon arrestedness that resonated with my new home. The adventures of the Ramona series are all small potatoes—in Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona’s dad works as a clerk at ShopRite and takes night classes; Ramona befriends a kid named Yard Ape—but the overall vibe is one of great realness, a vanilla version of Carver country wherein all the people who will eventually drink and smoke themselves to death in Carver’s bingo parlors and seaside hotels appear as their child selves. Perhaps because of the air of innocence in Cleary country, the author’s books remain a strikingly accurate portrait of Portland society—a culture that to this day elects an annual Rose Festival Queen, and whose citizens almost never jaywalk—capturing the subtle tribulations of decent, neighborly people who nowadays enjoy tattooing their faces.

Another point of the Portland triangle could be filled by Night Dogs, a cop novel by Kent Anderson, published in 1999, that takes place in the post-Vietnam ’70s. The book follows Officer Hanson, a Bronze Star holder, as he cruises the dirty boulevards of his North Portland precinct in search of love and valor, doing battle with PTSD, which leads him to superimpose the violence of foreign lands onto the bungalows and car washes of his fellow citizens. The local color is quite excellent throughout, as we see Hanson shaking down junkies in crummy apartment complexes and going on dates in swinging fern bars, and we marvel all the while at what a different town it was back then, what a different war. Even by the time I first moved to North Portland, in the mid-’90s, the air of seediness was on the way out, the avenues of boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots obviously girding themselves for a coming flip into tattoo parlors and artisan ice-creameries. Which isn’t to suggest that the harsh realities Anderson depicts have been banished from this quadruply gentrified city. They’ve only been pushed outward, north and east, captured now by writers like Willy Vlautin, Chelsea Cain, and the poet Matthew Dickman, as well as in the crime pages of the daily’s metro section.

Lastly, I’d include a recent novel by Vanessa Veselka, Zazen, a raging, lyrical meditation on the moral imperatives of extreme liberalism. Set in a post–Patriot Act city that greatly resembles Portland, the story follows a might-be terrorist, Della, as she seeks political meaning in a society inured to distant war and hungry for tofu scrambles. When bombs start going off in the city, she wonders if the terrorists’ agenda might sync with her own, and for that matter, whether collective action is even possible in a world that has turned so yogically inward. Where our most famous export, Portlandia, lampoons the legacies of American radicalism, this book takes the old, wild ideas dead seriously, to alternately romantic and ironic effect, in a way that would make our city’s first great literary anarchist, C. E. S. Wood, if not proud, then at least somewhat amazed.

There are other books that illuminate facets of Portland’s soul, too: My Abandonment, by Peter Rock; The Class of ’49, by Don Carpenter; The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin; one could even make the case for Chuck Palahniuk as a uniquely Portland-y writer. But I would argue that they all fall somewhere in this triangle—within the poignantly bourgeois, the bleakly hard-boiled, and the preposterously radical—casting a shadow that often points, perhaps surprisingly, toward war and the memory of war. In a land known for its celebration of peace, love, and understanding, the writers, to their great credit, dream of blood.

Jon Raymond, author of Rain Dragon