A View from the Edge–Portland Author Mark Pomeroy’s New Novel: THE TIGERS OF LENTS

Portland author Mark Pomeroy’s meticulous new novel, The Tigers of Lents, begins with the “noise of speeding vehicles” cascading down from the freeway that cuts an outer Portland neighborhood in half. The rushing cars are, quite literally, bypassing an area where hopes are few and houses are “mostly on the ratty side.”

The character hearing the noise is 17-year-old Sara Garrison, the oldest of four children in a family where the mother is a retail clerk who drinks too much and the father is in prison. Sara is a soccer star at the local high school, but the season is almost over, her school is scheduled to be closed, and on this drizzly night she’s carrying bags filled with her family’s garbage, hoping to sneak them into a dumpster behind an apartment house.

With her mission accomplished, Sara returns to her family’s one-story rental with her stomach tense at the thought of the dysfunction inside. “This is where she lives,” Pomeroy writes. “It’s true.” In other words, this is her hard reality, and, unless something changes, her future will probably look much like her present—without the sports or the cheers or the education.

Starting from this bleak yet tenderly-rendered opening scene, Pomeroy slowly builds a full and compelling picture of a struggling family in crisis, where every member has difficulties to face without much hope of help from the others. But while his book is mainly about the Garrisons’ problems, fears, and modest hopes, it’s also about a place and a segment of society that have been tragically neglected.

Pomeroy has written elsewhere about what he calls the edge of poverty in America, where people might have jobs and homes but are never more than “one emergency away from real struggle.” Not only did he experience this kind of life as a boy but he taught for a while in the high school and neighborhood depicted in his novel.

Over the course of The Tigers of Lents, Pomeroy gives us the point of view of everyone in the Garrison family, except the youngest child, a boy who suffers neglect from those who should be taking care of him. There’s Rachel, the smart one, who leaves home to live with her reckless boyfriend; Elaine, the responsible one, who overeats and tries to keep the peace; Melanie, the mother, who soothes her aches from standing all day with glasses of ice-filled wine; and Keith, the father, who exits his prison cell wary of a world that has passed him by.

Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

As he carefully weaves these perspectives and lives together, Pomeroy offers moments of modest hope: a chance that Sara might play at a local college, a possible reconnection between Keith and one or more of his daughters, the potentially healing properties of the wooded mountainside the children’s grandparents live on. But he never allows those hopes to seem false. Always, at every moment, everything is grounded in the gritty reality of a neighborhood and stratum of life that tend to suck the dreams and confidence out of people.

One of Pomeroy’s most impressive accomplishments is how well he renders the fluctuations of thought and emotion in dangerously vulnerable people, especially girls. Instead of making excuses for them or wasting time blaming society, he teases out nuances in the psychological and emotional struggles of people living at society’s margins.

Shopping street in Lents neighborhood, Portland, OR. Image courtesy of Living Room Realty.

In the end, The Tigers of Lents is a deeply satisfying read, but not because Pomeroy coddles his readers or gives his characters easy outs. It’s because he takes us through both hard situations and difficult emotions while being careful to show the importance of human relations and the ability, at even the direst moments, to make the right decisions and find a way forward.

Few novels explore the hard reality lived by Pomeroy’s characters and an increasing number of people of all colors and backgrounds in the United States today. Even fewer authors are able to do so with the skill, compassion, and attention to detail Pomeroy displays here.

Events:

Thursday, May 9 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading and Discussion (with Michael N. McGregor) at Third Place Books–Ravenna in Seattle, WA

Tuesday, June 18 at 7 p.m.–Mark Pomeroy Reading & Discussion (with Mary Rechner) at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.

Links:

Mark Pomeroy website

Pomeroy’s excellent first novel, The Brightwood Stillness (Oregon State University Press)

The Crash of Worlds,” Pomeroy article on the NW Booklovers website, about his background and the inspiration for his novel

The Lents neighborhood on Living Room Realty

Portland the Spinster

A three-week road trip through parts of the Midwest and Canada (including Chatham, Ontario, where the subject of my next biography–J. D. Ross–grew up) has kept me from posting anything for a while. But I’m back in the Northwest now and I just came across a May 19, 1917, article published in the national magazine Collier’s Weekly, entitled “Portland the Spinster.”

Intrigued? Me too. I always enjoy seeing how outsiders view the Northwest. This particular piece was written by a Californian named Wilbur Hall, who seems to have done little beyond this kind of magazine writing.

Hall begins with a wide-angle view of the lush Willamette Valley and its nearby mountains before zeroing on the people of Portland who, he says, “speak aggrievedly and as children disappointed when the peaks are veiled with clouds.” Having established a condescending tone, he quickly moves on to his main point: that Portland is like a reclusive, persnickety and somewhat risable woman–in his parlance, a “spinster.”

Image from Clipart Library.

Hall attributes the city’s spinster-ness to the continued, conservative control of the FFPs–the First Families of Portland, or, as he calls them again and again, “the Corbetts and the Failings and the Ladds and the Lewises and the Flanderses and the Hoyts and their kind.”

Waiting on the “approving nod of these families” he writes, are “questions of municipal harbor bonds, a mayor’s election, the Drama League, the repainting of the church, women’s smoking, the length of bathing costumes, and the absence of length in street skirts, prohibition, the location of the First National Bank, the conduct of our war against the I. W. W., pure-milk campaigns, the tango, the movie, the treatment to be accorded anarchists, strangers, holy men, fakers, new doctrines, new art, new thought, new life.”

According to Hall, the rest of Portland’s population “is built from two quite different classes, yet with many characteristics in common that would combine to give any community a flavor of provincialism.”

The first to arrive, he writes, were “powerful, slow, industrious, gentle, lovable people from the north of Europe–Swedes and Danes and Norwegians–drawn into this country of timber by the irresistible force of traditional vocation.”

The second were “families threatened by the maelstrom of the early days of the Rebellion–border-State folk without sympathy to attach them to the heroic flags of the South or conviction to carry them into the zealous ranks of the North. They were neither cowards nor shirkers, probably–just silent, unimaginative, unconcerned agriculturalists, for whom moving was cheaper and easier and safer than fighting or standing between those who fought.”

Image from Clipart Library.

In sum, the city was composed of fusty overlords and slow, unimaginative sheep.

Yet in Hall’s time, Portland had a very different reputation in some circles. It was known as the birth place of the Oregon System, which put political power in the hands of the people. How did he account for that?

Yes, Portland did hold the reins of power in the state, he allowed, and it was difficult to “square the [city’s] tendency toward reaction with the fact of progressivism.” But he had an answer for it:

“It happened that they had in their midst able leaders, ahead of their times. It happened also that there was a group of strong and consistent radicals among them–men of unusual ability, of high standing in the community, and of pronouncedly revolutionary schools. My notion is that the hidebound conservatives who dominate Portland when they exert themselves were caught napping in those early days when the direct-legislation triplets–initiative, referendum, and recall–were brought forth for the first time. Woman suffrage, prohibition, protective and regulatory measures of State socialization, came in in a rush. Before the conservatives woke up, Oregon was committed to an out-and-out progressive program. And now no one, not even the conservatives themselves, would be willing to go back to the older system.”

Image from the Oregon Secretary of State website.

In other words, Portland’s conservative FFPs were lazy and hoodwinked but simply said, “Oh, well” when they found themselves in a new system.

There is much to smile at in Hall’s depiction of a city he wants to dismiss as being unworthy of comparison to his own Los Angeles. But at least he comes close to getting Portland’s rain right:

“As nearly as I can get at it, Portland doesn’t have so much real rain–not in inches; it just seems to have. As I understand it, Portland’s rains are scattered more or less evenly through the year, sunshine and downpour being doled out in climactic layers. I was assured by Portlanders, not only that no one minds the rain, but that they don’t have a really wet rain.”

Image from Clipart Library.

Guest Post: Writer Stewart Holbrook Was the NW’s ‘Best-Known Personality’ But Never Received the Credit He Deserved

by Michael Schepps (you’ll find a full bio, including a link to Schepps’s new book, Split Aces, at the end of the article)

Throughout much of his life, the writer Stewart Holbrook (1893-1964) was considered “perhaps the Pacific Northwest’s best-known personality.” In seemingly endless articles that garnered a devoted local readership and were often excerpted in the national press, Holbrook captured and caricatured what he called the country’s “Far Corner” during its rapid mid-20th century modernization, painting an indelible portrait whose legacy lives on today. But Holbrook did more than just portray the Northwest. His stylistic innovations in the field of creative nonfiction are the equal of the more-celebrated Joseph Mitchell, but he has never received the credit he deserves.

One of Holbrook’s primary interests was timber. After years of working in Northwest logging camps (as well as sojourns in the theater world and on the battlefields of France), he took a position in Portland in 1923 as the associate editor of the 4-L Lumber News, the mouthpiece for a government-and-industry-backed labor union meant to be an alternative to the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Seeking to supplement his income through freelancing, he found a home in the pages of The Oregonian. There, he regaled readers with histories, character studies, and reportage about whatever crossed his path, including his observations during drinking sessions with the grizzled waterfront tough Edward “Spider” Johnson.

Written with considerable brio while invoking a demi-realm of myth and history, these articles are much of the reason for Holbrook’s lasting influence. In particular, his vivid evocation of the Pantagruelian proportions of Augustus Erickson’s gargantuan bar and the sinister chthonic depths of the city’s Shanghai Tunnels helped create the popular perception of nineteenth-century Portland as an “anything-goes” fantasia.

In Holbrook’s depiction, a wild drinking session at the “longest bar in the world” might end with the drinker being drugged and trafficked (alongside dead men and cigar-store statues) through tunnels honeycombing the waterfront, only to wake up in chains (while facing a year’s harsh service) on a rotting clipper ship rounding the Horn.

Although Holbrook’s work appeared in national publications such as The New Yorker, The American Mercury, and Esquire at the same time his East Coast contemporary Joseph Mitchell was publishing the character sketches that would make him famous as a progenitor of what is called “new journalism,” he has never received adequate credit for his own innovations in prose. When literary historian Norman Sims named Joseph Mitchell a major influence on “new journalism” (or literary journalism) he pointed to Mitchell’s penchant for “merging fiction and nonfiction, the symbolic and the literal, biography and reportage, the real and the imagined landscapes of the city.” What is true for Mitchell is equally true for Holbrook.

Along with Mitchell, Holbrook wrote from a participant-observer perspective and often focused on “lowbrow” life, which are valuable tools today in any nonfiction writer’s toolkit. Of course, he shared some of Mitchell’s more questionable practices too, including the use of composite characters, invented dialogue, and hyperbole in the service of a larger truth (practices for which Mitchell has more recently suffered a dramatic reappraisal, with some even wondering if he was truly a journalist).

Read as imaginative literature or “literary journalism,” Holbrook’s work remains clean and compelling, the deeper truths beneath the varnish of embellishment and hyperbole shining through as bright as ever. But as serious history, it is greatly lacking. One historian has gone so far as to say that “repetition of a Holbrook fiction is a sure indication of lazy scholarship and gullibility.”

During his lifetime, Holbrook published over 30 books and countless articles. At its best, his work ties together strands of deep research and interviewing, a bright sense of place and character, and a singularly appealing voice. The East Coast transplant understood an essential truth about the region where he made his home and set his writing: it was a place of malleability and reinvention whose story had not yet been fully told—a place where the telling of its story could both define it and make it new.

Michael Schepps is a writer, editor and publisher in Portland. His exploration of authorial invention and identity continues in his debut noir novella Split Aces, available now from Korza Books, in both e-book and print. To read more of his work, visit MLSchepps.com.

Guest Post: Celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin’s Real and Imaginative Connections to a Place Called Portland

by David Naimon, co-author of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing

[Editor’s note: The following is Naimon’s foreword to a new collection of writings by Portland writers called Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas and published by Portland-based Forest Avenue Press. In it, he discusses how Le Guin’s science fiction and other imaginative works reflect her experiences of living in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll find more information about Naimon and the book at the end of the post. This writing is copyrighted and used by permission of the author.]

Dispatches from Anarres is a tribute to the vision of Ursula K. Le Guin from writers who either live in or have a strong connection to Portland, Oregon, the city Le Guin called home for sixty of her eighty-eight years. The premise behind this book is not only that Portland shaped Le Guin’s writing but also that writers who live in Portland, who walk the same streets Le Guin once walked, in turn have been shaped by Le Guin, arguably Oregon’s greatest writer.

But are either of these notions, when examined, actually true? Yes, one of Le Guin’s canonical science fiction novels, The Lathe of Heaven, is set in a future Portland, but for the most part her science fiction and fantasy novels are set in imagined other worlds. Should we therefore consider Le Guin’s relationship to Portland in the same way we do Alice Munro’s to southwestern Ontario or Gwendolyn Brooks’s to Bronzeville, Chicago—places these writers’ work seemed to emerge from, be fed by, and grow out of? Le Guin often wrote about the importance of the imagination and put forth a philosophy that, interestingly, did not place the imagination in opposition to the real. Can a book be truly called “realistic” if it does not include the imaginative, given that our imaginative faculties are so central to what makes us human? Or as Ursula put it(more pithily than I ever could): “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” And: “Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real. But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.” Le Guin was quick to point out that many of our foundational cultural texts, from Beowulf to Don Quixote, from The Odyssey to Hamlet, are in fact fantastical, imaginative works that are also true and real ones.

Outside of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin did directly engage with “the real world.” Her poetry and nonfiction often explicitly spoke to the geography, culture, and ecology of Oregon and northern California. From a meditation on the street where she lived to poems written from her favorite cabin in the remote Steens Mountain region (where her family briefly homesteaded generations ago), these writings are rooted in the “here” of place. But when it came to her fiction, she said: “I seldom exploit experience directly. I do what the poet Gary Snyder calls ‘composting’—you let everything you do or think or read or feel sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later, maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.”

If everything Le Guin did or thought is part of this composting process—the process that led to the world of Earthsea and the planets of the Hainish cycle—then the metaphor of composting seems not a metaphor at all. Le Guin and the landscape she inhabited, literary and geographic, were inseparable. A founder of Oregon Institute of Literary Arts (the precursor to Portland’s most prominent literary organization, Literary Arts), she also taught writing workshops at Portland State University, at the Malheur Field Station in remote Harney County, Oregon, and at Fishtrap in the Wallowa Mountains. She was an enduring supporter of Portland’s KBOO community radio and of West Coast small presses, from the feminist sci-fi press Aqueduct in Seattle to Tin House in Portland to the anarchist AK Press in Chico, California. She explicitly credits the landscape of the Steens Mountain region of Oregon as an inspiration for The Tombs of Atuan, and that of northern California for Always Coming Home—and one could imagine, standing atop the high point of Orcas Island, Mount Constitution, in northern Washington, overlooking the watery wonderland of that island archipelago, that it too could’ve been a wellspring, if not the wellspring, for the world of Earthsea. Le Guin’s imagination arose from the Cascadia bioregion, and she continued to weave herself from it and back into it again. Her imaginative composting came from and returned to this land, this earth in particular. Taken in this light, Susan DeFreitas’s twinning of Portland and Anarres—not as a reductive one-to-one correspondence, but as a mysterious union of the real and the imaginative—makes sense.

In Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Anarres, the smaller planet in the double planetary system it shares with Urras, is considered lesser, not a planet at all, but rather a moon, a “rebel moon,” by its larger, wealthier, capitalistic, patriarchal neighbor. Long ago, in order to stop an anarchist rebellion, Urras agreed to allow the revolutionaries to live as they saw fit on Anarres, signing a noninterference pact to that effect. The anarchist society that arose on Anarres considered itself free and independent of the old world largely thanks to this pact.

For the longest time, Portland too was left alone, the forgotten big city on the West Coast. Without the immediately dramatic and stunning settings of San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, Portland was a quiet inland port, one that lacked the scope of international commerce and cosmopolitan cultural influence of its outward-facing neighbor cities. And it was here, out of the spotlight, far from the hype, that artists and writers and dreamers, attracted by the cheap rent and affordable cost of living, were drawn to reinvent themselves. Whether it was the DIY ethos that developed here, the farm-to-table relationships that supported the local food movement, the family-like network of writers that emerged, or the radical acts of civil disobedience to protect the environment or protest the latest war (so prevalent that the first President Bush called Portland “Little Beirut”), the city emerged in many ways as a rebel moon.

Le Guin believed the notion of home was both imaginary and very real. “Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary. Home, imagined, comes to be,” she said. “It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are.” It is easy to imagine that these people—the tree sitters, the DIY artists, the community organizers—were not only inspired by Le Guin’s writing but also showed her how to imagine it. Le Guin was a listener, and a composter of what she heard. She advocated fellow feeling for the nonhuman “other,” for plants, animals, rocks, rivers, and even the tools we have fashioned from what the world has given us.

No wonder the stories of her fellow Portlanders, these dispatches from Anarres, include tales of women coming of age, women coming into their power, of tree-like networks in our brains, of tree-like networks as our brains, of the inquisitive and nostalgic remembrance of humans by ant collectives, and discussions of rebellion among bees. But there are tales that reveal the darker side of Portland as well. There is a reason Le Guin subtitled The Dispossessed “an ambiguous utopia.” Le Guin didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses. Nor did she see Anarres or Portland this way.

As Jo Walton has pointed out, “Anarres could so easily be irritatingly perfect, but it isn’t. There are droughts and famines, petty bureaucrats and growing centralization of power.” And Portland’s self-regard, its self-mythologizing, its imagining itself into being as a place of self-reinvention, has often been fueled by historical and cultural amnesia. Founded on stolen indigenous land, built on the idea of racial exclusion, many Portlanders live here without a sense of the city’s history of redlining and displacement, of lash laws and internment. And as Portland has entered the spotlight, succumbing to a hype it had avoided for so long, housing prices have skyrocketed, the homeless population has exploded, communities of color have been pushed to its periphery, and Portland’s own utopic mythology has rightfully been called into question.

Samuel Delany suggests that the term “ambiguous utopia” is not meant to apply to Anarres in particular. That the peoples of Urras and Anarres both mistakenly believe they are living in a utopia. That Le Guin is questioning the notion of utopic visions altogether. “It’s only by problematizing the utopian notion,” Delany said, “by rendering its hard, hard perimeters somehow permeable, even undecidable, that you make it yield anything interesting.” This is what Le Guin has done. And under her spell, there are stories here that root the imaginative deeply in place, that suggest that there is no walking away from difficulty to create a happiness “over there.” Here we are, as in so many of Le Guin’s novels, in a place where people are imagining worlds into being that suggest both dystopic and utopic possible futures. Here we are with choices to make. About where to be, how to be, and what to imagine. Welcome to Dispatches from Anarres.

David Naimon is a writer and host of the literary podcast Between the Covers in Portland, Oregon.  He is also co-author, with Ursula K. Le Guin, of Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books), winner of the 2019 Locus Award in nonfiction and a Hugo Award finalist.  His writing can be found in Orion, AGNI, Boulevard, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere.  It has received a Pushcart prize and been cited in Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing and Best American Mystery & Suspense Stories.

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Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan DeFreitas

Forest Avenue Press, Portland, Oregon

Published: November 2021

366 pages

$18

Contributors: TJ Acena, Kesha Ajọsẹ-Fisher, Stevan Allred, Jason Arias, Stewart C. Baker, Jonah Barrett, Curtis Chen, Tina Connolly, Mo Daviau, Rene Denfeld, Molly Gloss, Rachael K. Jones, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Juhea Kim, Jessie Kwak, Jason LaPier, Fonda Lee, David D. Levine, Gigi Little, Sonia Orin Lyris, Tracy Manaster, James Mapes, C.A. McDonald, David Naimon (foreword), Tim O’Leary, Ben Parzybok, Nicole Rosevear, Arwen Spicer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Leni Zumas.