Like a lot of native Portlanders, author Jon Raymond knows better than to find his city quaint. "I know about all your secret lynchings, even if you don't know about them yourselves," Anne says when she visits Portland in Raymond's new novel, Freebird (Graywolf Press, 336 pages, $26). "The scrupulous curation of the room, of the whole town, felt like a form of ethnic cleansing."
A cynical Los Angeles County environmental officer, Anne is in town to meet a Portland eco-capitalist for a shady wastewater deal that would make her rich. Despite her feelings toward the city, the trip becomes a welcome break from a rocky domestic life that includes a teenage son who dreams of touring Mexico, a senile Holocaust survivor dad, and a brother returning from war with PTSD.
The novel's title, along with its bird-motif cover, calls to mind Jonathan Franzen's Freedom—and like that novel, Freebird is driven by inner monologues and centers on the health of both the environment and the modern family. But Raymond—a writer of novels (The Half-Life), films (Meek's Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) and TV series (HBO's Mildred Pierce)—has a quality Franzen doesn't: concision. He gets the job done with about half the number of pages.
And while Franzen might blanch at the bawdiness of clipping his own toenails, Raymond wallows happily in dick jokes and poop references. The corporation Anne goes to bat for is the winkingly named wastewater-conversion project BHC (Brown Hairy Cornwater) Industries. Down in a body-sized bunker, Navy SEAL Ben "farted grandly…and relished the bouquet of coffee, rotten fruit, and mud."
But if Raymond risks indelicacy, he's usually going somewhere with it.
The book has its own version of Godwin's Law, the internet trope that claims the longer a conversation goes, the more likely someone will bring up Hitler or the Nazis: The book never goes more than a few pages without bringing up genocide. Sometimes it's lighthearted, like Anne's Woody Allen-like love of evoking Goebbels or the thousand-year Reich at her slightest pique. Sometimes it's serious. We learn the story of Anne's Holocaust survivor father as he slowly unearths it from memory and offers it to teenager Aaron. Meanwhile, Ben may have committed his own atrocities as a Navy SEAL, and the PTSD from his most gruesome missions leads him to bring home the violence of war.
In Freebird, there is no war without murder, no Portland without racism, and no eco-friendly wastewater solutions without a whole lot of shit.
Jon Raymond reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside.