‘Livability: Stories’ by Jon Raymond
Bloomsbury: 264 pp., $15 paper
It’s difficult to talk about Jon Raymond’s first story collection, “Livability,” without mentioning that two of its nine short stories have already been made into films. This is probably how much of Raymond’s audience will discover him -- through Kelly Reichardt’s adaptations of “Old Joy” and “Train Choir” (which became the film “Wendy and Lucy”). But Raymond’s tales remain as quietly engrossing in their natural, printed habitat as they do upon a screen. They expand the scope of characters from cultural outsiders and lanky ne’er-do-wells to include members of the moneyed upper class, grieving spouses and young boys confronted by “shared torpor and sudden enthusiasms.”
Geographically, Raymond sticks with the terrain he covered so adeptly in his first novel, 2004’s “The Half-Life”: the shaggy, woolen area of northern Oregon where the Columbia and Willamette rivers intersect and the radio towers on Portland’s West Hills pulse against the clouds. This is the modern Portland of communal living, clear-cut forests and trafficky shopping malls, and the meditative, inward-looking concern of men and women who have tried to forge an individualist path in an increasingly cynical landscape.
In “Old Joy,” Mark takes an impulsive overnight trip with his estranged friend Kurt but keeps wondering why, precisely, he’s chosen to do so. Is it to get the old chemistry going again? In “Benny,” that question is explored under a darker set of circumstances. The narrator, Daryl, might as well be Mark as he searches for his friend Benny, who might as well be Kurt, this time gone so far afield that neither his father nor his brothers have any interest in trying to bring him back. “They’d already found him in every . . . situation you could think of. Jail. Sleeping under bridges. Bleeding in the street. They didn’t have the time for it anymore.”
The eerie social prescience of these stories paints communities just on the verge of an economic collapse. The failure of capitalism is the specter that floats through “The Suckling Pig,” “New Shoes” and “Train Choir.” Far from the verdant Garden of Eden espoused in 19th century Western expansion brochures, the American Northwest of the 21st century, with its unremitting rain and hidden scabs of scorched earth, may simply be where the dream goes to die.
It’s pretty easy to speak disparagingly about the future and America’s whispering class structure, but Raymond does so in a cautious way that informs the characters and, by extension, what we’ve come to see as weak and torpid in ourselves. High-schooler Kendra in “Young Bodies” finds herself at the Lloyd Center overnight, locked in an Express with fellow mall-worker Bryan, a cheerful, good-looking vision of upper-middle class discontent. “She sat on a stool . . . and listened as Bryan proceeded to hold forth on all the vices of American culture as he saw them. American consumerism, American piggishness, the moral injustice of the throwaway society. He hated the mall and all it stood for. . . . Most of all he hated George Bush. He hated him more than anyone alive.”
We’ve heard these platitudes before, and the sense of empowerment is fleeting, at best. It’s not hard to see either of them living near a bridge five years later, making due with itinerant jobs and stomachs full of personal conviction. The trick, perhaps, is that Bryan’s upper-middle class parents won’t ever let him get that far away.
Comparisons to the self-consciously hardscrabble Northwest of Raymond Carver will certainly be made, but it’s the poems of Richard Hugo, born in the Seattle suburb of White Center, to whom these stories feel the most connected. Like Hugo’s lovingly practical images of nature and bleak, localized stasis, Raymond’s work floats just beside the realm of possibility, often ending as a character is teetering dramatically on the precipice of something. With Raymond, as with Hugo, we glimpse lives in suspension, and the effect, by the book’s end, is dizzying.
“Train Choir” won’t have any surprises for anyone who’s seen the film, but it’s the story with the most at stake, emotionally. Traveling to Alaska with her dog, Verna is in a Walgreens parking lot when her car breaks down. Through a series of domino-like circumstances, she finds herself stripped of nearly all she’s brought with her -- dog, money and car -- and confronted by a terrifying late-night visitor as she camps on a hill.
Like Verna, we can shudder if we admit that our feelings of security are rooted in extremely fragile soil: “Black terror descended like bats. . . . She gasped for air and sweat streamed down her forehead and back. The world her visitor had emerged from was not so far away. It was only a few steps in either direction. At any moment, around any bend, she could be claimed by it.”
Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.
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