by Richard Melo, reading at Powell's City of Books, Thurs. September 9, 7:30 pm; Reading Frenzy, Tues. September 14, 7 pm
I've read a lot of books in my life, and if there's one thing I can recognize it's foreshadowing. Whether it's laziness on the author's part (something inserted during the editing process to make the ending plausible) or just a horrible habit (see Joyce Carol Oates), sometimes it's so calculated, it's insulting. Foreshadowing, by definition, should be "distinctly prophetic," and if Jokerman 8 author Richard Melo's writing doesn't fit that description, it certainly feels anything but deliberate.
Jokerman 8 follows an eponymous troupe of college-aged eco-saboteurs from roughly 15 years ago. Think tree-spikers, wolf-trap-busters, whale ship-sinkers--self-proclaimed "environmental pranksters" who travel from San Francisco to British Columbia, Oregon, and Iceland for their mischief-making. This--and the fact that "Live happy" is the first and last sentence of the book--may be off-putting to the anti-hippie contingent in Portland; it shouldn't be, though. First, these kids may talk the talk of hippies, but they don't walk the walk--they actually get stuff done. Further, the book is, at the very least, worth a read for its settings in Oregon (Melo is a native and current Portlander) and for its tips on legally forcing PGE to send you monthly checks (seriously). It's also unassumingly intelligent.
Tracking the group from exploit to home to hideout to exploit, the novel moves swiftly, though not hurriedly (more like the Willamette than the Columbia). Most engrossing, however, are its tributaries--the stories of the individuals. A Quaker sets himself on fire outside the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War; two members of the clan pose as Christian fundamentalist animal-rights activists in order to appear on a talk show; a VW bus (formerly used by the Black Panthers) is dropped into the San Francisco Bay. It's very easy to get caught in the current. Melo has a way of making the most preposterous event seem plausible and Jokerman 8, avoids melodrama and never loses its carefree spirit. In his first novel, Melo produces a work that is sweet and stirring, like taking a weekend furlough in the Siskiyou Forest before setting some SUVs on fire.