by Jonathan Raymond,
appearing at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Friday, May 28, 7:30 pm
Jonathan Raymond's debut novel The Half-Life is a breathtaking, ambitious pair of connected stories telling the tale of two friendships separated by 150 years. The intertwining narratives evolve in Portland, whose civic character, dark history, and soggy landscape is as much a protagonist in the novel as any human character. Raymond's unaffected prose, sensitivity toward humanistic details, and fine pacing make The Half-Life an astonishing story that will alter the way you look at the city we live in.
The book opens with Cookie Figowitz, an endearingly sweet and delicate cook for a group of 1820s fur trappers who have lost the trail to the promised land--Fort Vancouver. Cookie, who hates when the men quarrel and daydreams of educating workers on how to make flaky croissants, harbors a stowaway; Henry, a well-liked showoff who embodies the romantic entrepreneurship of Manifest Destiny. Together, Cookie and Henry forge a lifelong ambiguously gay friendship that eventually sends the duo to China, where Henry schemes to make a fortune off castoreum oil, a miracle potion excreted from the anal glands of the beaver.
Flash forward to an early 1980s commune on the northwestern edge of Portland. Tina Plank and her mother seek their own good fortune in Oregon by moving up from California, and like the settlers 150 years earlier, lament what humans have done to the landscape. Tina hooks up with the troubled but enigmatic Trixie Volterra, who in the ninth grade, made a "live-action (film) rendition of the comic strip Nancy, starring a boy in her neighborhood with premature aging syndrome as Henry." Tina and Trixie form a uniquely teenage friendship that involves making fun of the creepy men in the commune, taking Tri-Met around town while fried on acid, and becoming increasingly devoted to making a feature-length schlock film about the inventor of the frontal lobotomy.
Raymond's prose is straightforward and direct, and he resists the trap of falling into corny 19th-century dialects and clichés in favor of natural dialogue and clear writing. The Half-Life is a truly joyous read--inventive, unaffected, honest, and dazzling. CHAS BOWIE