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Feature : Books : 12.31.2008

 

Ordinary People

Live here now

by Molly Templeton 

LIVABILITY, short stories by Jon Raymond. Bloomsbury, 2009. Paperback, $15.

It’s possible you’re already a fan of Jon Raymond — with or without knowing it. You may have read his 2005 novel The Half-Life, or you may have seen Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy, a quiet, meditative piece based on Raymond’s short story of the same name, which opens this new collection. Reading “Old Joy” after seeing the movie is a little bit strange; the characters have specific faces whether you want them to or not. But the tone, crossing from page to film and back again, is precise, still, delicate and consistent. It’s not a comfortable story, this look at two old friends trying to find common ground, but it’s not exactly uncomfortable, either. It’s familiar.

Familiarity traces itself over the stories in Livability, layered into the Portland streets and cold coastlines that serve as the settings for the book’s nine stories. At the coast, a widower searches for the spirit of his wife but finds instead a woman he never quite connected with before. In Portland, a man looks for his old friend Benny, playing detective in old haunts and noticing the new pieces of the city around him. In “Train Choir,” a drifting young woman on her way to Alaska’s fisheries faces a string of moments gone wrong in a desolate small town. She doesn’t have the luxury, the indulgence, of thinking about her loneliness, but it’s palpable, vibrating through the pages of the simple, singular, mournful story. (“Train Choir” should soon arrive in town as another Kelly Reichardt film, Wendy and Lucy.)

Raymond’s characters are observers, noting the details of a date’s unwillingness to venture outside his comfort zone or the unspoken meanings in a friend’s casual greeting. Most of them exist in a space between detachment and immediacy, not vividly connected to those around them yet still sitting firmly in the present, aware of the receding past and wary of the looming future. “On either end of his consciousness the edges resolved,” Raymond writes in “The Suckling Pig.” “The past tapered to nothing, the future tapered to nothing, and his hours became like a bright, tented wedge in the blackness.” He’s describing Tom, a wealthy suburbanite whose weekly dinner party has taken on unexpected guests, but he could be describing Verna in “Train Choir” or Kendra in “Young Bodies,” trapped in the Lloyd Center Express with an acquaintance and little to do to pass the time, or Dan in “New Shoes,” watching his daughter shop and coming to terms with a future that may never appear.

But then there’s David, the boyfriend in “Words and Things,” a careful delineation of romantic approach and disconnect. As Jen — an artist who gives weight to things rather than words — ends her relationship with David, an art critic, she thinks, “He would take this moment and wrap it up and carry it home to ponder from a distance. … He would experience this, as he did everything, only in dreadful retrospect. Jen could see David’s past and future closing in tightly around him, disrupting his carefully maintained sense of not really being there at all.” In the end, Jen comes to see a few of David’s words as things, waiting for her in her answering machine, not just intangible, imprecise descriptions that fall short of objects. But it’s not his writing — which she thinks of as a “sad pursuit” — that sets him apart; it’s his distancing, his irony. There’s little room for that in the world Raymond describes so beautifully: Choose distance, and you’ll find yourself alone on a Portland street. But his present is never insistent; it never demands that you be here now or that you ignore what came before. It simply knows that there’s only one way to make your place in this world: by living in it.

Jon Raymond reads from Livability at 7:30 pm Thursday, Jan. 8, at Powell’s on Burnside in Portland.