Stray City Proves Writing About Reality Doesn’t Have to Be Miserable

Portland, Oregon/Photo by Steve Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0

Is it possible to name the sensation you get when you’re reading a book that is speaking to you on a level that transcends intellectual appreciation? When I used to teach creative writing, I told my students that the sensation they were after in their fiction was “resonance,” the vibration underneath your breastbone that told you that what you were reading was connecting to something inside yourself. It felt a little “woo-woo” and abstract to describe great writing in such a way. Then, I started reading Stray City and found that the book’s protagonist, Andrea, describes her adopted city of Portland, Oregon: “The town matched something in me, the way a kind of guitar dissonance could strike an internal tuning fork that made my bones hum.” Exactly the feeling I tried to convey to my students. And I felt a connection that made me keep reading further.

The book is set in Portland in the late 1990s, a period before the TV show Portlandia with its stereotypes of the hipsters. And also in the midst of the period when the city I had called “home” since I was an adolescent—Seattle—was in the midst of a population explosion that transformed it. Andrea refers to Seattle as the city to the north that is “puffing up like a toxic blowfish,” and prefers to live in the “old industrial river town” that is “broke, struggling with employment, mostly white, mostly hopeful, even though there was no real change in sight,” the description that she also applies to herself.

The Seattle and environs of my youth was a mixture of working class folks who worked at the paper mills and aircraft factories that provided the city’s shoulders (or armpits, based on the constant smell of sulfur) and the coffeehouse and arthouse cinema and music venues that had grown up in the 70s and 80s during the city’s period of economic malaise. It was home of the original Skid Road when they slid trees into Elliot Bay and knocked down Denny Hill to flatten the downtown area; an Underground City that had been built over – literally – at the end of the 19th century after a massive fire; a Red Light District that ran in front of the Pike Place Market and down to Pioneer Square, the old part of the city where one could sit and drink in taverns that contained one of many carved and crafted bars that had been transported around Cape Horn and look up at pressed tin ceilings that had yellowed from a century’s worth of cigarette smoke; or hang out in any of the numerous coffee houses that dotted the U-District, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne Hill, and downtown. And the importance of teaching newcomers the mnemonic for memorizing the order of the streets that came down into downtown at steep angles that wore out a car’s clutches and brakes: Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest. I left that Seattle in 1993, just as a couple of local bands, Nirvana and Soundgarden, burst onto the national scene.

That Seattle is virtually unrecognizable these days. Native son Bill Gates founded an empire across Lake Washington, and Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the other tech companies that moved to Puget Sound transformed the city. The last time I visited, I had the uncanny experience of knowing the map of Seattle so that I always knew what street I was on and what was the upcoming cross-street, but with rare exception, all of my landmarks were gone. It didn’t feel like home anymore.

So it’s obvious that one of the attractions to Chelsey Johnson’s book is my own sense of nostalgia. And while nostalgia is treated in popular culture as a happy expression of loved memories, the etymology of the word comes from two Greek words: nostos and algos. Together, they describe the “pain” of wanting to “return home,” carrying within them the sense that the place you want to go home to doesn’t exist anymore. Chelsey Johnson negotiates the complexity of the feeling. Stray City is at once a joyful, funny novel while also provoking melancholy that the life that was possible in Portland in the 1990s is gone, lost to “gentrification,” which is really just a word for driving out neighborhoods of the working class and the poor in favor of building houses that are out of reach for those who once gave the neighborhood its character.

In a different way, Stray City could not have come at a better time. The novel is centered around a group of friends, most of them lesbians, who gather for community dinners on a regular basis and provide each other with support. These are women who recognize their own power, power that they don’t owe to their relationships with men. Johnson pokes the bear of homophobia by printing the “rules” for the women, who call themselves the “Lesbian Mafia.” But reading those various memos and rules provides many of the comedic moments in the novel, as the members make high stakes out of whether Ani DiFranco is still okay to listen to and what to think about Anne Heche. But those funny moments also allude to those moments when a group that is beginning to recognize its political power starts to define what ally-ship looks like, and how personal decisions can be seen as political betrayals.

Stray City is a novel of female friendships, but also relationships between mothers and their children. And Andrea is a struggling artist, so Johnson also deals in a realistic way with the struggle for money when you don’t have a safety net, and everything is dependent on the various ways that you earn money while trying to “do art” in the spaces of time that are left.

Lawn Boy is another novel about financial struggle, the desire to create art, and the specificity of that kind of life in the Pacific Northwest, the Kitsap Peninsula in Western Washington. As the novel opens, Mike Muñoz works in people’s yards in order to make money, but it isn’t the work that he envisions as a career. Mike aspires to be a landscape artist, someone who designs topiary and creates garden spaces. He also wants to be a writer, even to write what he calls “the Great American Landscaping Novel,” but the struggle to earn money interferes with his ability to write. He also wants to avoid being a cliché, and Mike, who is Chicano, struggles with how to be seen by his potential clients as something other than a Latino man who cuts lawns. The area is full of lawn maintenance workers who are recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and, as immigrants, they’re not treated well by the people who employ them. The last indignity is when a client insists that Mike clean up all the dog poop in his yard, even though it’s not part of Mike’s job. But it’s reflective of how badly people treat other people whom they consider to be lower on the social scale than they are. And so, Mike quits.

Mike spends a lot of time looking for jobs, and his assessment of his job prospects are both brutally honest and comic.

After telling Nate, his mentally challenged brother, that he’s trying to concentrate while reading the “help wanted” section of the Kitsap Herald, he acknowledges his dilemma.

“Actually, it took very little concentration once I conceded that I had no sales experience and couldn’t swing a hammer or program computers or even do an oil change. My broke-dick truck disqualified me from the delivery-driver position or even a job with those fascists over at Uber. And of course, there was nothing in the Herald for landscapers.”

As readers accompany Mike on his job-hunting journey, it becomes clear that without experience that it requires experience to acquire, he is stuck in the economic doldrums already occupied by millions. The factory jobs that used to be waiting for high school graduates are long-gone, and options are scarce. If Mike is going to succeed, it’s going to have to be through a combination of his own tenacity and by making connections with people who can give him a hand.

Both Stray City and Lawn Boy are working-class coming-of-age tales. These are not young people who have the luxury of gap-year travel trips or internships that are subsidized by wealthy parents. These are young adults who want to be artists but who have no economic support system for pursuing their craft, honing their skills, except for the time they can carve out after they’ve worked long enough hours to pay the bills. And yet, despite that struggle, both of these novels are joyful, funny, and life-affirming. While the entry point for me may have been my connection to setting, ultimately, what caused me to love both of these books was the realistic portrayal of money. Too many novels revolve around characters who have no visible means of support, or who never seem to have any money issues. These two novels demonstrate that writing about gritty reality doesn’t have to mean miserable. There’s a lot of laughter in the struggle.