Bloomsbury: 272 pp., $16 paper
FADE IN: A car idles in the foggy pre-dawn, pointed at the end of a cul-de-sac. Inside, an attractive 30-ish couple, DAMON and AMY, are worn from travel. She is dark-haired, pale-skinned and tense, and she leans against the passenger window. Behind the wheel, he carefully watches her mood as they evaluate the appearance of an owl in front of them. Good omen or bad? They can’t decide, and continue on, lost.
This is the opening scene of “Rain Dragon,” the second novel by Jon Raymond, who earned devoted fans with 2004’s “The Half-Life.” Since then, he’s gone into screenwriting, earning an Emmy nomination for his work on the 2011 HBO miniseries"Mildred Pierce.”
In “Rain Dragon,” Damon and Amy have left Los Angeles behind to try to find a more meaningful life somewhere to the north. Their hopes are pinned on the last destination, an organic farm in Oregon, Rain Dragon, with a modestly successfully yogurt line.
Welcomed into the Rain Dragon community, Amy finds her footing quickly — she’s good with bees. Damon has a harder time of it, not being particularly good at the things a working farm needs: horticulture, animal husbandry, building. “I calculated we had at least three more hours of tiling to go, and I’d already run out of major thoughts to think,” Damon frets. “Outside, the sun was shining onto a world of birds and grass and interesting human interactions, none of which I was able to see from where I was crouched.” He’s not constitutionally suited to take pleasure in learning any of the various physical activities of the farm.
The one thing he’s tuned into is Amy. He’s hyper-aware of her emotional changes, how they play across her face. He tries to divert bad moods from becoming extended bouts of unhappiness. To get an Oregon place of their own, he has to land a paid gig at Rain Dragon, which he eventually does: He’s good at turning words to excellent effect. He becomes the company’s first PR guy, giving its underlying ideology voice, planning popular events and moving Rain Dragon into greater prominence. He’s even invited by the company’s founder to help him draft a business-slash-self-help book.
That founder is Peter Hawk, a charismatic leader with a hippie-style vision that grafts well onto modern entrepreneurism and ambition.
All this is told from Damon’s point of view, a perspective so neutral as to be like a movie camera. Damon can observe details — the evaporating imprint of a hand on glass, the sound of a firecracker — but he’s missing an emotional meter. His relationship, it turns out, is threadbare, and the move back to the land has put it under pressures he doesn’t see.
The setup is a little like “Lost in America” meets “Portlandia,” but everything is ratcheted way down. Where Albert Brooks’ movie was increasingly hilarious, “Rain Dragon” sustains a flat affect; while “Portlandia” brims with affectionate satire, the sometimes out-there philosophies of Hawk and his crew are presented straight. The flat-faced approach is hard to read; if only Damon would tell us, when confronted with a new flaky idea, how he feels about it. Does he embrace it? Is he put off? Is he confronted by contradictory impulses? We don’t know: He’s a camera, observing.
In the mid-2000s, there was a brief post-chick-lit flash called “lad lit” — it didn’t catch on, partly because the name wasn’t so hot, and partly because it evoked the unpleasant specter of novels of bros, floozies and booze. This, however, strikes me as true lad lit: It’s the story of a relationship in crisis, told from the point of a view of a guy who doesn’t think like a girl. At all.
When Amy puts Damon on notice, which comes as a complete surprise, he doesn’t go back over their interactions. He doesn’t wonder what he might have done wrong. He doesn’t scrutinize her relationships with other men, or women, for signs of romance. It’s not that he doesn’t love her — he does — but his way of thinking about that love is recognizing her movements with affection. There is another level of thinking about relationships that’s absent from his world.
While at first it was hard for me to believe any person in a long-term relationship wouldn’t belabor its endangerment, I came to see that it rings true for Damon and quite possibly has a broader resonance. Maybe there are other men who, in crisis, would not call a friend, talk to a shrink, check in with a family member to elaborate their dilemmas. Maybe there are lots.
What Damon does do is look forward: to each encounter with Amy, to warming relations. And forward momentum is something Raymond does well. The plot zips along: There is always something interesting to find on the next page, a nice exchange of dialogue, a lively twist — sometimes predictable but not always.
For this reader, it was the absences that stood out. I wanted to know what Damon was feeling. I wanted to know if the hippie ideas turned into business strategies ever struck him as loopy — or if they did not. I wanted him to have a confidant, a relative, a correspondent with whom he’d share ideas, someone who might know him well and challenge him. I wanted him to think, with greater urgency, about why he was doing what he was doing, and what it meant.
I think, however, that my expectations in this regard are hopelessly bourgeois. If I want explicated emotions and detailed relationship-building analysis, I can read Jane Austen, or thousands of other novels. If I want, on the other hand, to see an alienated man drift alongside his girlfriend, lost and disconnected, aware of the world in the most oblique way, I can read “Rain Dragon.”