For all its famous bookstores and silent-reading nights and generalized middlebrow street cred, nobody ever gets Portland on the page.
I say this as a books-section editor who receives at least one young-adult or romance novel set in Portland each week—written usually by someone not in Portland—where the city is used as unexamined shorthand for an "artsy place," an accessory for a Jennifer Aniston type who also plays viola but can't fit the damn thing in her trunk.
And then there is Portland writer Monica Drake, whose first short-story collection drops this week. The Folly of Loving Life (Future Tense Books, 262 pages, $15) feels much belated: Her first novel came out in 2007, and it was accompanied by a foreword from Chuck Palahniuk about how good her short stories were. But it also feels like the book the city needs right now—an identity crisis gone citywide.
The stories in Folly are linked, but only somewhat—tethered about as loosely as the lives they describe—mortared up by a series of existentially sad "Neighborhood Notes." Those two words are already a laugh line for anyone who's haunted the website, which reads a lot like the PR office for Portland's NIMBY army.
"I could order Pad Thai by just shouting out to the world," reads one of the notes. "This was the new Portland: crowded."
If Willy Vlautin's terrain is the hard-luck horse-track alcoholics of North Portland, and Mitchell Jackson's is hard-knocks Northeast, Monica Drake describes the Portland in which I spend the most time. It is a batshit place whose people are wounded by chemtrails, overeducated, "choking in beards" and probably ill-employed. Its sidewalks are filled with van-dwellers in "Satan's Pilgrims" shirts and sad dressers abandoned on the sidewalk and marked "FREE" as if that were an offer.
"When you open a drawer you'll see a pen and a book of matches," Drake writes. "You'll find an uncapped needle. You can use it. Go ahead. It's fine. How do we know it's fine to use? Because other people have."
It is a place where—as in her first novel, Clown Girl, set in "Baloneytown"—a police officer might take loving pity on a woman who works as a clown. It isn't played only for laughs, although it is often very funny.
Rather, reading these stories is a bit like finding a beautiful painting of a wound. While the novels are more character studies, involutions of eccentricity, among the shorter narratives here it is place that feels most freshly described: the art museum, the cul-de-sac neighborhoods whose roads are all named the same.
The South Park Blocks, in the eyes of one character, are a "green zone, to his mind. Not in the military sense, but a place he could hide and hope." After all, amid transient students and the homeless you aren't expected to have friends.
She even manages—in perhaps a literary first—to describe a bicyclist in a way that could possibly be romantic to someone without a helmet constantly getting stuck on their stretched earlobes: "I'm every car that's ever idled, a motorcycle gulping its own exhaust, lurching toward open road," narrates the bicyclist. "I'm paid to stand, and I get this feeling my body is waiting for my mind to figure out what I'm supposed to do with being alive."
Time was, you'd give a newcomer Palahniuk's book Fugitives and Refugees to show them what living in this city is like. Maybe from now on you'll give them this one, which in many ways mourns the loss of the city described there.
GO: Monica Drake will read at her book-release party at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4651, powells.com, on Monday, Feb. 29. 7:30 pm. Free.