William L. Sullivan is an essential member of the Oregon literati, author of the most successful series of hiking guides in a state that loves to hike. Ask your friend with a bandanna-wearing yellow Lab: weekends wouldn't be weekends without Sullivan. Sullivan's Listening for Coyote, a memoir of his 1,361-mile solo backpacking trek across Oregon in 1985, was named one of the best 100 books written by an Oregonian by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.
The Oregon Variations (Navillus Press, 340 pages, $18.95) isn't a hiking guide or memoir, though. Billed as the literary equivalent of Bach's Goldberg Variations, it's an ambitious attempt to craft a short story themed on each of Oregon's 36 counties. Who better to attempt it than the go-to expert on the Oregon wilds?
The problem, though, is that Oregon Variations is like a hiker who packed a week's worth of stuff for a day hike: slow, clumsy and confusing to onlookers. At times, it seems totally lost on the trail.
At 340 pages, Variations is a bulky paperback and far more cumbersome than a typical short-story collection. It's even bulkier than it looks. Sullivan set out to include a story for each county, but some of the chapters are so seemingly random and only barely associated with Oregon that they should have been sliced from the first draft. For example, there are the four photos of Crater Lake in the middle of the book with no further context; there's a poem titled "Elvis Presley at the UO German Department" that can speak for itself: "Slimy goo, slimy goo/ Slime your voodoo Berkeley zoos/ Voodoo Berkeley zoos/ Cross-eyed Aunt Eva's warden tart."
And then taking Sullivan's creativity to a higher level is his story "Quadvertising." In this piece, the protagonist gets paid $1 an hour to have a microchip implanted in his tooth that forces him to replace the first letter of long words with the letter Q. "Company" becomes "quompany," "typographical" becomes "quypographical." The purpose of the short story is to lead up to the end gag: a dig at IBM. The "Q" company gets bought out by a different company and the protagonist ponders the mystery of the new owner of his tooth and brain: "Who knows? Some huge ibmompany with way too much ibmoney."
Sullivan, who has always self-published his line of hiking guides, should have used some of the royalties from his successful series to pay a friend with a bright red pen to read it for some feedback. "Bill," she would have said, hesitant to offend the man staring at her bright-eyed and hopeful, "I don't know about this one—maybe you should get started on that Forest Park guidebook."
READ IT: The Oregon Variations is available at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., or through oregonhiking.com.