In 2016, local author Jennifer Robin published Death Confetti, a kind of stream-of-consciousness memoir that served as a fitting paean to the storied "Old Portland" of yore.
With new short-story collection Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press, 320 pages, $14.95), Robin widens her scope to the country at large. As she explains in the book's opening vignette, she spent her youth traversing the country, from her native Rochester, N.Y., to Montana to the swamps of the Deep South, encountering a colorful cast of characters along the way: wayward mothers at bus stops, wisecracking airport cart drivers, dumpster divers with the discerning tastes of restaurant critics.
Through her travels, Robin has also come across the rifts in the glossy veneer of the United States. The shoddy state of our mental health services becomes real when Robin and a friend chase a schizophrenic pal through a strange city. Elsewhere, she muses on the defense industry, hunger, gasoline, fake news and artificial intelligence.
Robin has a keen eye for detail that make her longer, more narratively aligned stories buzz with life. In "Union Station, 2006," she recounts the antics of a model and dancer on a bus who soon has every man on board under her spell. Moments later, another passenger notices an eagle soaring across the Eastern Oregon sky, both a metaphor for the highflying antics of the dancer, and a reminder of the insignificance of the goings-on on the bus.
Though the book's scope is broader, Portland still plays a key role in Earthquakes. In "Tony (Hula-Hoopin)," Robin recounts a date with a westside exec type who word-vomits bizarre mantras as he trots Robin to the most exclusive locales. Anyone who has watched the bizarre, lurching hordes through Old Town on a weekend night and wondered about their conversations will now have an answer.
Perhaps because of her brilliance in these brief narratives, Robin's more abstract and poetic entries are less resounding. As damning as her recitation of economic figures in pieces like "Indentured and Torn" and "Debt in America" comes across, the stories lack the personal connection of her character-driven work. At points, those excerpts veer into the parodic. "Vows" is just one sentence—"I now pronounce you man and smartphone"—and reads like a Black Mirror parody tweet.
That said, Robin provides more than enough material in Earthquakes in Candyland to prove her talent as a writer, eking out redemption and pathos from society's wretched and burned. Just as Death Confetti was a fitting tribute to a city in transition, Earthquakes in Candyland deftly captures a nation in a similar state of movement.
GO: Jennifer Robin reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., powells.com, on Thursday, Aug. 8. 7:30 pm.