Contemporary Western Realism Hits Close To Home

by | Feb 22, 2009

The nine stories in Livability by Jon Raymond are jangling around in my head, like chimes after the wind has come.

For me Raymond is a discovery, a new writer to follow and a local one at that. His book of short stories released just before Christmas has already garnered reviews from The Denver Post, San Francisco Chronicle and LA Times. Raymond also did an interview with Seattle Times art critic, Michael Upchurch.

Upchurch asks Raymond about his priorities, since he also the Editor of Plazm, an art mag, writes screenplays—two of Raymond’s stories in this collection have already been made into films—and has a novel under his belt.

Writing fiction is the “job” I try to keep at the center of things. The movie stuff has been a wonderful accident, though not entirely bizarre, either, as I have done some work in film before, and even directed a ridiculous, cable-access feature back in my 20s. As far as paying the bills, though, I’ve had the pleasure of falling into an odd series of freelance jobs over the years, mainly in advertising, or para-advertising capacities. I also teach from time to time and review books and art. So far it’s worked out all right, but long-term survival remains kind of mysterious to me. The father’s artistic/financial anxiety in “New Shoes” is definitely something I relate to, and something I think a lot of other artists probably would, too.

In the story “New Shoes” the screenwriter at the heart of the story learns to not get his hopes up. Here’s a sample of Raymond’s prose:

Along the way, dozens of people had proclaimed their love the project before ultimately, grudgingly, with great regret, etc., passing. In the movie industry’s spectrum of affection, Dan had come to find, loving something didn’t actually mean that much. It was all hyperbole. If something was “good,” it was generally terrible. If something was “great,” it was not embarrassing. Merely to love something was a form of neutrality at best. It implied fear that someone else might see potential there, and thus it might be worthwhile to buy the author a few lunches, but it foretold no commitment of any kind. In a world of delicate egos, Dan could see how hyperbole was useful. Loving ensured no one’s feelings got hurt. But he was not deceived by the word anymore either.

The only word that mean anything was “special.” “Special” was the highest praise. He never got “special.” (p.185)

There’s a deep yearning in Raymond’s characters. In “New Shoes” Dan the writer-director longs for the approval of distant producers and money men. His longing is palpable, but it doesn’t compare to the needs of other characters in Raymond’s book. In “The Suckling Pig” every character the reader meets has some sort of hole to fill with work, recognition, respect, and of course, love. The story “Benny” is another classic. Benny’s family needs to know their junkie son is safe. Benny’s childhood friend (and narrator of the story) needs to prevent himself from drifting too far away from his roots. Benny himself is desperate for his next fix. In the story “Young Bodies” a teen-aged immigrant from Russia is tough on the outside, but she’s desperate for the intimacy she’s never know. And so on.

What the reader is left with is a sort of melancholy. The kind one might find in a certain brand of indie rock songs, say by The Decemberists. That is to say, it’s a charming and welcome state of mind, even when it’s not joyous. I also get the sense that these stories are a 21st century update on the pioneer’s dream. All the stories are set in Oregon, which is a grand stage, however you look at it. Raymond intentionally showcases urban and suburban Portland, along with The Cascades and the coast. It’s complex, this dream we dream in Pacific Wonderland. And like it’s always been, the dream comes true for some while others’ have their hopes crushed and possibilities continually minimized.

The last story in the book, “Train Choir” is rib aching sad. It’s been made into a film by director Kelly Reichardt. It’s called Wendy and Lucy and stars Michelle Williams. You can see in the trailer the sense of living on the edge that’s inherent in Raymond’s work. You can also see the Western themes played out cinematically, the pace is slowed and one’s struggles are made to seem almost picturesque.

If Jeremiah Johnson (as depicted by Robert Redford in the 1972 film) were alive today and living in Oregon, I’m confident Jon Raymond would capture him in a narrative framework.