James Bernard Frost's new zine-style novel, A Very Minor Prophet, couldn't be any more Portland if it were topped with bacon and served at a food cart by a man wearing an ironic T-shirt. This is both a criticism and one of the book's endearing qualities, and it's something Frost meets with a sigh.
"Portland is a city obsessed with itself. Some Portlanders are going to say it's too derivative and too 'Portland' because Portlanders think about nothing but Portland," Frost laments. "I started the thing long before Portlandia or Stumptown or even 'hipsterism' became household names. So it annoys me that the slow process of bookmaking has turned the book into a trend."
Frost began writing the book in 2004 after relocating to Portland from San Francisco. The city is as much of a central character as it is the backdrop, encouraging both the creativity and aimlessness of its inhabitants. The story follows Barth Flynn, a 22-year-old college grad with an English degree from the University of Iowa and little on the horizon beyond his job as a barista and his half-hearted zine, Octogonal Table Talk.
The prophet comes in the form of Joseph Patrick Booker, a dwarf preacher (illustrated as Tattoo from Fantasy Island) who claims to have found his religious calling after a chance encounter with two lesbians in Arkansas. When Flynn gets a flat bike tire and is invited into Booker's ramshackle church (where the baptismal fonts are filled with Stumptown coffee), he finds himself the test audience for Booker's first sermon, delivered from a stack of milk crates. More creatively inspired than religiously moved, Flynn turns Booker's sermon into a zine, becoming the dwarf preacher's unwitting scribe.
Told with the tangential quality of a Tom Robbins novel (including his penchant for quirky characters), A Very Minor Prophet manages to relay its sermon, and its love song to Portland, with humor and charm. Although the book documents the religious revelations of Booker—who, it is no spoiler to reveal, ends up beheaded—the real enlightenment comes in the form of Flynn's own struggle to find purpose. It's a common enough theme, but Frost manages it with such authenticity that it is almost depressing for those of us still caught in the struggle. But that's what the doughnuts are for.
GO: James Bernard Frost reads Saturday-Sunday, May 19-20. Saturday's reading is at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, 917 SW Oak St., No. 218. 7:30 pm. Sunday's reading and performance is at Dante's, 350 W Burnside St. 8 pm. $7. hawthornebooks.com.