The wayward west

Pub date January 7, 2009
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

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The world falls away again and again in Jon Raymond’s short stories. The 10 pieces comprising Livability (Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $15), the Portland, Ore., author’s first such collection, are introspective ellipses enshrouded in the march of everyday life. We may hear about a job or spouse in passing, but Raymond submerges his characters into stunned states of contingency. Kelly Reichardt’s film adaptations of Raymond’s tales (2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy) surely expand upon their source material, but his third person limited point of view skims existential drift with delicate precision. Whether it’s the dissipation of a Fight Club–inspired adolescent initiation ("The Wind"), a furtive after-hours blow job in the mall ("Young Bodies"), or a search for a missing friend amid the unfamiliar streets of a gentrifying city ("Benny"), Livability‘s plots are liminal hooks, awash in the overcast Oregon sky.

Though not an overwhelming prose stylist, Raymond sutures our reading with familiar ruminations. We have all known "almost lovers" and "might as well have been brothers." Most of us have friends who can "turn everything inside out in two breaths," too. Raymond’s characters have sharp eyes for sadness, spotting regret in everything from the diminishing opportunities for a bargain ("With the Internet, everyone knew exactly what everything was worth") to the misdirected vigor of young fathers ("Only after they’d been beaten up by the world for a good, long time were they ready").

The dearest passages in Livability linger over the unexpected amnesty of solitude. In "The Coast," a becalmed widow admits his guilty relish in being alone: "I enjoyed making the small decisions about which way to turn on the beach … I liked the slight puzzle a single man my age seemed to pose." In "Words and Things," a newly single woman observes the warmth of a cup of tea pressed to her hand, the light of passing headlights, and a silence that "crackled on her eardrums." These snatches pull up short of ecstasy, instead taking measure of the quiet remainder of perseverance.

The culminating story, "Train Choir," stands out for its inexorable chain of events, a heartbreaking progression with the unerring momentum of a ballad. In it, a young woman (Verna here, Wendy in Reichardt’s adaptation) breaks down in Oregon on her way to work the Alaskan canneries with her dog Lucy (who first appeared in the film version of Old Joy). Verna is literally at a loss, but it’s not so much what happens to the character as it is the steady undoing of options that makes "Train Choir" so moving. Even when a menacing turn is diffused, helplessness is still "only a few steps in either direction."

Raymond invokes the domestic dissolution of the George W. Bush era by giving Verna’s journey the telling backdrop of a flood. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to miss the story’s basic yet perspicacious point that the road from Bush’s America is not a freeway. Verna’s careful tally of expenses registers a different picture of money than the one lodged in discussions of "the economy." When a steep repair estimate pushes her over the edge of solubility, the sense of dispossession is sharp, like grief. Verna comes unyoked from society, but "Train Choir" is a frieze of vulnerability rather than disengagement. Verna’s condition illustrates the ease with which one can slip between the cracks in today’s United States — Bush’s rhetoric about the "ownership" society is meaningless to the individuals and entire communities who feel disowned by their country.

And yet, desolation offers its own illumination: "Overhead, the lights seemed to flutter, and for a moment she worried the whole world might disappear. But in fact nothing happened; the world remained as it was. There was no thunder. No lightning." We can read either hope or despair into these lines, but it would be folly to think the two are more than a few inches (or votes) apart.