This Week's Reads

Peter Donahue and John Trombold; Robert S. Devine, Richard Engel, and Barry Lopez.

Reading Seattle: The City in Prose

Edited by Peter Donahue and John Trombold (University of Washington Press, $22.50) When a promising young staffer at The New Yorker lit out for literary terra incognita in the 1960s, the godlike editor William Shawn asked him, "Tell me, Mr. —— , are there any writers in Seattle?" That kind of attitude has always raised hackles out here, and every once in a while it irritates the locals into producing a literary anthology. The latest is Peter Donahue and John Trombold's collection of 41 slices of mosstown life in letters. "Seattle has joined New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New Orleans as one of the nation's great literary cities," insists Donahue, with a cedar chip on his shoulder. "As readers, reviewers, and publishers catch on that Seattle is a city teeming with writers, we also recognize that there is now a genuine and vital Seattle literature." I wouldn't exactly say "teeming," but the population clearly has increased since Shawn's day. By mostly concentrating on recent decades, Donahue and Trombold manage to field quite a lively team, not only the usual suspects but a few newsier names: the olden goldies Betty MacDonald, Murray Morgan, Roger Sale, Emmett Watson, and Tom Robbins; the inevitable David Guterson, Timothy Egan, Jonathan Raban, and Sherman Alexie; but also Hemingway's feminist confrere Josephine Herbst; Horace R. Cayton, 1920s scion of the first black family on Capitol Hill, and his '60s counter­part Neil Henry, "a drop of color on a field of snow" in Seattle's Uplands subdivision; and Pioneer Square pioneer memoirist Monica Sone and her fiction-writing counterparts John Okada and Lydia Minatoya. Arranged roughly chronologically, the stories and reminiscences resonate in the company of one another, like revelers at a noisy party. Generations imbibe the heady aroma of vice near Jackson Street, where a gum-snapping burlesque ticket taker "always winked a shiny purple eyelid" at Sone, whose dad owned a Skid Road flophouse, and where the draft-defying hero of Okada's story "No-No Boy" notes, "The street had about it the air of a carnival without quite succeeding at becoming one." A half-century after the heroine of Mary Brinker Post's 1948 Annie Jordan: A Novel of Seattle discovers a huge whale jawbone at "the Old Curiosity Shop," Lynda Barry's heroine in Cruddy confronts a giant whale penis at "Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe." (Barry has drawn an item or two from my life for her fiction, and I wonder if this bit derives from the time Ivar Haglund involved me in his plan to install 11-foot whale wangs in his restaurants.) Her portrait of Donut Shop–era Pike Place Market sleaze is on a par with Kerouac's classic ode to the same scene in the '40s (which unaccountably isn't in the book). Bad behavior seems a common theme. Herbst's boardinghouse girls scandalously sympathize with the 1919 strikers who shut down Seattle and brazenly puff cigarettes with men. Cayton gets his teenage self arrested for crossing the color line in a Second Avenue theater at the moment the South exported Jim Crow laws to Seattle. Emmett Watson's real-life literary character Rudi Becker points a huge rifle at a rude driver and fires, detonating a noisy air horn that leaves the rudenik "in a pallid state of near seizure." (Rudi did this because "Some people have to be taught to be nice to other people"— a classic example of Seattle's style of angry niceness and reminiscent of the dueling Seattle bumper stickers cited decades later by David Shields: "MEAN PEOPLE SUCK" and "NICE PEOPLE SWALLOW.") The narrator's sister in Thom Jones' brilliant tale "Cold Snap" lobotomizes herself with her slightly less-crazy brother's squirrel pistol, accidentally curing her mania. In Richard Hugo's white-trash White Center, Old John, the Greek fisherman who'd killed a bear in a wrestling match, "once knocked two thieves senseless, then carried them, one over each shoulder, a quarter of a mile to [where] he called the police." In Walt Crowley's 1960s U District, "Fringies" got busted for smoking crumply cigarettes resembling "a penis after the struggle." Two decades later, Chinese-Norwegian-American writer Paisley Rekdal, a Roosevelt sophomore, repeatedly eludes getting busted while sneaking night after night into Ravenna Park, keeping her virginity yet earning a reputation as a slut, wrestling with boys in cars, and accepting wee-hours rides to Discovery Park from a stranger with knives on his car seat "for cutting away the trim from his new wiper blades." Some of the pieces are too short to get far, like the excerpt of Matthew Stadler's well-regarded novel Allen Stein; a few others are just snoozy and pointless, like Mary McCarthy's "How I Grew" and Natalia Rachel Singer's "Blurred Vision: How the Eighties Began in One American Household." Singer talks about the era when houses were cheap as dirt after the Boeing layoffs and someone erected the celebrated "Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out the Lights" billboard, but it's garrulous, aimless. A fit rebuke to it is Charles D'Ambrosio's "American Bullfrog," set in the same era, but more vividly peopled with drunk punks, some of them from unemployed Boeing families, who swill "green death" (Rainier Ale), smoke hash from bone pipes, and, to avenge the influx of gentrifying gay guys on 15th Avenue in the wake of the layoffs, hunt men in Volunteer Park, which they call "Ball-and-Queer" Park. They talk with hostility about the "fags," but really they're fascinated by the way the guys cruise each other by signaling in code with flashlights. Pretty soon the punks are wrassling in the wet grass like Hugo's Old John with the doomed bear. Even this good story is hampered by shortness: The narrator complains his "dink was still wet and sticky from Finklebien," and bloody, but we don't know who Finklebien is or where the blood came from. I don't think this book proves the existence of "a Seattle literature," but it does hint at vague regional family resemblances, more formally defined in Egan's classic essay "Northwest Noir." And it certainly answers Mr. Shawn's skeptical question. TIM APPELO Peter Donahue and John Trombold will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Thurs., June 3; and at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Mon., June 7. Bush Versus the Environment

By Robert S. Devine (Anchor, $12) Within the first few hours of George W. Bush's first day in Washington, a memo circulated instructing federal agencies to hold up pending regulations developed by the Clinton administration, including more than a dozen significant environmental rules. To veteran journalist and nature writer Robert S. Devine, this was the opening salvo in an unprecedented presidential attack on the environment. Most of us, Devine assumes, have heard about how Bush backed out of the Kyoto accords, or how he has denied that global warming is scientifically proven. But he says that Bush's gutting of environmental protection goes much further than that. "Unless you've taken a particular interest and have been reading a lot of fine print," he writes, "you don't know the half of it—probably not even a tenth of it." The goal of Bush Versus the Environment, then, is first and foremost to make known what exactly Bush is hiding behind friendly names like the Clear Skies or Healthy Forests initiatives. The list is long, and a quick overview includes rollbacks on nearly every pollution regulation, opening of wetlands for development, weakening laws restricting pollutants from gold and copper mines, and not one new endangered species added to the list—even though there are hundreds of candidates. It's little surprise that the League of Conservation Voters, an organization that evaluates the environmental records of sitting presidents, gave Bush an F for his first two years in office. What's most interesting here is not these revelations—if you're reading this paper, chances are they're hardly news—but Devine's gumshoe work in following the money trail. It starts during the 2000 election, when mining, timber, chemical, manufacturing, oil and gas, and coal-burning interests forked over $44.1 million to the Bush-Cheney campaign and the Republican National Committee. Lobbyists for industry have been overjoyed; every giveaway they asked for on an antiregulatory wish list cooked up in January 2001 was accomplished within two years. One reason the administration has been so attuned to industry is that several prominent industry lobbyists are essentially running the Department of the Interior. Devine reports that Allan Fitzsimmons, who was tapped to run the department's wildlife program, has said he "doesn't believe there is any such thing as an ecosystem and that 'public recreational benefit is the principal reason for conserving natural features.'" This kind of ignorance partly explains how Bush has managed to undo more than 30 years of environmental legislation in just three. Devine tries to make the case that these people do not actually hate nature, they just love money. It is the only false moment in this important and outrage-producing book. JOHN FREEMAN Robert S. Devine will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Tues., June 8. A Fist in the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During, and After the War

By Richard Engel (Hyperion, $22.95) Warring soldiers may get combat pay, but war correspondents get book deals. The Washington Post's Rick Atkinson and NPR's Anne Garrels are only two of the more notable to have published works about the Iraq war this past year. This new one from Richard Engel, who covered the war for ABC, blends frontline reporting with personal history, but mostly repackages news reports already familiar to most. The thirtysomething Engel is an impressive fellow. After graduating from Stanford in 1996, he "vagabonded" off to Cairo with a thousand bucks in his pocket and dreams of making it as a Mideast correspondent. He learned passable Arabic within eight months and was soon sharing smokes and tea with the locals, establishing contacts with militant Islamists, and filing stories for Reuters and ABC. In late 2002, he snuck into Iraq without a proper visa or firm commitment from a U.S. news agency. By the war's midpoint, he was the only American TV correspondent left in Baghdad, wandering the streets with a mini digital camera, a reporter's notebook, and $20,000 in cash wrapped around his ankle. Engel's reporting on the war itself is far less refined than his personal anecdotes. Although he occasionally presents telling scenes, he mostly circles around the action, as if he can't work the zoom function of his literary lens. Even when describing the mob that gathers after American bombs hit a residential neighborhood, he fails to focus on those individual details that would bring his story alive. He's also hampered by the tight-fisted nature of prewar Iraq and his bomb-imposed exile in Baghdad. As a result, the book struggles to go beyond a summary of the war's main events. When offering his opinion and analysis, he often sounds more like a high-school debater than a man who supposedly earned his gravitas on the ground. A Fist in the Hornet's Nest does provide insight into two of the current insurrection's underpinnings: the complexities and internal tensions of Iraq's Shiite power structure and the less than fraternal relations between the U.S. Army and Marines. But on the whole, his discussion adds little to what's available from the mainstream press. His more lasting message is likely an unintended one. At the book's start, he says he became a journalist so he could ride "the train of history rather than [watch] it pass" him. In the age of 24/7 news, it feels like we're all on that train. Works like Engel's that do little to inspire reflection remind us that better books tend to come from those who wait. WALTER C. STERN Resistance

By Barry Lopez (Knopf, $18) Barry Lopez, renowned for his nature writing, has never kept his feelings about the environment a secret. But he steps over into the broadly political with his latest, diamond-sharp book of short stories, Resistance. Set in the present day in countries from France to Argentina, the volume consists of nine fictional testimonials. In each one an artist or writer tells their story, revealing over and again how governments and civilizations threaten to crush artistic expression, how capitalism and global­ization threaten to leach the meaning from our daily interactions. It's an age-old story—the individual vs. the state— but one not often carped about in this country's fiction. This whiff of the revolutionary so redolent in these pages is sometimes a tonic, sometimes a turnoff. "Apocalypse" begins with an American curator and his wife doing research in Paris, but culminates in a 12-page screed against artistic repression. In response to a harassing letter from the Office of Inland Security, the narrator admits to the cell-like nature of the artistic community. "We have unraveled ourselves from our residences, our situations. But like a bulb in a basement, suddenly somewhere we will turn on again in darkness." What's creepy about this story is that the ghoulishly dystopian France it portrays isn't that different from the U.S. of the present day. Lopez is a sumptuous descriptive writer, especially when evoking nature, although his prose occasionally turns wooden in fiction. He's at his best when addressing otherness and how it can often inspire violence. In "Mortise and Tenon," for example, a man journeys to the Middle East for work, where he's assaulted by some street thugs who hurl anti-American epithets at him. Lopez beautifully captures the backwash of rage that bubbles up after such an event, and how easily it can turn into bigotry. "Traveling with Bo Ling" records the memories of a Vietnam veteran whose internal landscape—not to mention his flesh—is scorched by his tour in the jungle. By loving a Vietnamese woman, he begins to live again. Alan Magee has contributed a series of monotypes to this collection, and the ghostlike figures in them help give each story an otherworldly, ominous tone. They also signal Lopez's intention to test the boundaries of what we expect in fiction. There are no brand names here, even fewer glimpses of pop culture. Instead, Lopez gives us a glimpse of how the sparks fly when individual will digs in against culture's monolith. The title is most appropriate. J.F. Barry Lopez will appear at Third Place Books, 7 p.m. Tues., June 8. info@seattleweekly.com

 
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