I'd like to announce the first annual Powells.com's "On Oregon" blog 2009 Book of the Year.
I'm the sole judge, I live in Oregon, and the book I pick has to be about Oregon in some way, either as a topic or setting. It could be a new release, a forgotten classic, or totally obscure. No publisher submitted it to me; I simply happened across this book in my routine fixation on all things literary Oregon, and it blew my mind. Then, after reading the book, I felt an intense desire to share it with others.
There are no nominees — just a winner. I may know the winning writer or I may not. There is no monetary prize. Maybe I can find a little trophy in a thrift store and rig it up to look nice.
Every year, I read a lot of writing about Oregon by Oregon writers — dead or alive. Some of the writing is popular and some is long out of print. I read history, politics, guidebooks, memoirs, essays, newspapers, poetry, monographs, studies, blogs, documents, and fiction. I seek Oregon writing out for pleasure and reference. I want to know how other writers view Oregon or have viewed Oregon, what obsesses them today, what obsessed them in the past.
I discovered many wonderful pieces of Oregon writing this year, but one book I read didn't so much as blow my mind, it detonated it. When I finished reading it, I instantly recognized that something new and revelatory in Oregon fiction had occurred. The writer, obviously a native to the state, finally had integrated into fiction, Oregon's — particularly Portland's — recently changed cultural sensibility. No longer was Oregon merely a fictional (or non-fictional, for that matter) rural (or hippie) place of rain and trees where narrators and characters found epiphanies in nature or succumbed to it. Virtually all of Oregon's poetry, memoir, and fiction set in the state has been dominated by that very theme since Oregon began producing writers.
At long last, a writer recognized that something in Oregon had changed, and he invented some characters to live through and with those changes.
The winner is Livability, a collection of short stories by Portland writer Jon Raymond, whose previous novel The Half-Life, also set in Oregon, equally impressed me.
In October, Livability won the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction at the Oregon Book Awards and I heartily endorsed that choice, but for reasons I doubt the out-of-state judges imagined. Of course, the writing is superb, fluid, funny, unpredictable, and Raymond constructs some of the best effortless dialogue I've heard in a long time. But what truly connected me to this wonderful book was my feeling that it marks the beginning of a modern exploration of the urban Oregon mind.
Most of Livability's nine stories are set in or around Portland, in a changed Portland and Oregon, meaning changed from how incredibly provincial the city and state remained until the mid-1990s or so. Raymond really never analyzes these changes; they just happened and the characters float through them:
From "The Coast":
Over the years things changed a fair bit. The Californians came in, building their angular beach houses and yoga centers.
Mork's was on Albina, a formerly sketchy neighborhood, but parking the car I saw those days were over. I was confronted by new condos on two corners and a half-dug foundation on the third, which wasn't surprising, and not even that depressing either.
From "Words and Things":
They had talked at length about their city, now seemingly evolving from its almost premodern slumber.
If there is a better title for an Oregon book of fiction in recent memory, I can't recall it. The word livability, for those of you new to the state or too young or too historically ignorant to recall, was popularized by legendary Oregon Governor Tom McCall (1967-1975). During his two terms, McCall signed into law unprecedented and progressive governing initiatives that turned Oregon and Portland into one of the most desirable places to live in North America. Beach protection, land use planning, the Bottle and Bicycle Bills were just a few of the laws that helped create this notion of livability that later attracted so many people. And with those new people, their new money and new ideas, Portland and Oregon changed. It's outside the scope of this piece to evaluate those changes, but I hope other writers take up that topic in their fiction and journalism. It seems important to me.
In my own teaching at Newport High School I discuss these changes as I perceive them with my students. Where are we going? Who or what is an Oregonian today? Who is credentialed? Livability sparked those questions in my mind and I wanted my students to read this book for that and other reasons. So I wrote Jon Raymond and then Raymond's publisher and asked for a class set of 40. It couldn't hurt to ask, right?
They arrived a couple of weeks ago and in the spring, my creative writing class will read this excellent collection and Jon Raymond will stop by and pay us a visit. Then my students and I will write short stories set in Oregon where Oregon is a place and a character.
Congratulations, Jon Raymond — you wrote the "On Oregon" 2009 Book of the Year.