BY MY CONSERVATIVE estimate, there are 4,700 novels currently in progress about what it's like to be young, white, tattooed, and full of feelings in Portland, Oregon.
That's fine. Nothing wrong with that.
But the troubling thing about the way Portland has been packaged and sold and mocked on TV and sold again in the past decade is that the image of benign quirkiness we currently project is utterly homogenous, and utterly white.
Mitchell S. Jackson grew up in Northeast Portland in the '90s. For those of you who weren't around in those days, let me clue you in: Twenty years ago, Alberta wasn't the street you rode your fixie down to refill your kombucha growler. People of color used to outnumber whites in Northeast Portland neighborhoods, and that's the milieu in which Jackson's excellent novel The Residue Years is set.
The novel begins with a woman, Grace, visiting her son Champ in jail. And then it hops back in time to the circumstances leading up to that incarceration, where it follows Grace's attempts to get off crack, and Champ's big plans to get his life together. So all along, the reader knows something that the characters don't: That Champ's probably not as good at crack dealing as he thinks he is. That he's not going to grad school, at least not right away. And that he probably doesn't accomplish his dream of buying back the family home from the gentrifying white people who bought it from his family for cheap. It doesn't matter what decisions they make, as the book unfolds—we know how things are going to end. Circumstances matter more than intentions, in Champ's life.
But it's a testament to how fully drawn the characters are—and how perilous the situations in which they find themselves—that their stories are nonetheless completely gripping.
The Residue Years is a voice-driven novel written in vernacular, an exercise that would fail if Jackson didn't have precise control over his prose. He does. Here's a sentence about a foolhardy friend that's alliterative and poetic, and captures his friend's bravery and recklessness: "True, there ain't no superheroes here (all of the tough dudes end up dead or defeated), but some guys, guys like Half Man that live by pistols and pathos, there's just ain't no persuading them they're capeless, that, no matter, white tees over flesh never amounts to Kevlar."
Jackson's novel is beautifully written and sad and hopeful in a way that aches. And if you live in Portland—and especially if post-gentrified Portland is the only Portland you know—you should read it.