20 Essential Seattle Books, Part 4: Northwest Classics

For the fourth of our posts suggesting twenty essential books for Seattleites, having focused on history, race and place, we now attempt to suggest some writers whose work best characterizes our “regional literature.” In previous posts we’ve already mentioned Richard Hugo and Sherman Alexie, both of whose works certainly belong on this post. Here are some more Northwest classics for your shelf.

With his mischievous, playful tone, Tom Robbins has certainly helped to define our offbeat Northwest style, but when it comes to picking one book for readers new to Robbins, we’re torn. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Another Roadside Attraction are both classic early gonzo Robbins. Then again, Jitterbug Perfume and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas are both terrific, and set right here in Seattle. In the end, we’ll go with our heart: Still Life With Woodpecker. Why? Maybe it’s the way he writes about blackberries, how they force their way into polite society, engulfing dogs and small children, entwining the legs of virgins and trying to loop themselves over passing clouds. Maybe we’re still a little sweet on the girl who gave us this book in college. Does it really matter? Read it.

Of course Northwest literature isn’t all fun and games, and the best exemplar of the grittier side of local lit is the great short story writer and poet Raymond Carver. Unlike the other titles in this post, the stories collected in Where I’m Calling From are not suffused with the sights and sounds of the Northwest where Carver was born, and which he returned to in his latter years. If anything, these taut realistic slices of life are notable for a lack of specific geography. His characters often feel lost, caught in dead-ends or swept from place to place by their need to get by, and by an unspoken and largely unsuccessful search for home. This grim, restless lack of center – this too is at the heart of who we are in the upper left hand corner of America.

When asked – as we sometimes are by newcomers and visitors alike – for the quintessential Great Northwestern Novel, we have a couple of ideas. The first book that comes to mind is Ken Kesey’s big boisterous 1964 novel Sometimes A Great Notion, the story of an epic conflict between a family of gyppo loggers and union foresters in Oregon that contains some of the best descriptions ever written of our trees, moss, mud, air, and our rain, and rain, and rain; read the opening passage and see if you don’t agree. This is Kesey’s best book, and one that arguably put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map.

But then there’s Annie Dillard’s  The Living, a masterful and vivid historical novel relating the struggles and sacrifices of early white settlers on Puget Sound, desperately carving out a place amidst the crowding cedars and Douglas firs, aided by the curious onlooking Lummi Indians. Dillard’s detailed descriptions of this wild place at the far end of the world, seen through the eyes of naive newcomers and ancestral first peoples alike, capture the essence of life on the Salish sea at a crucial moment, as the old ways yield to new cycles of boom and bust, kicking off that manic fluctuation that continues to this day. So maybe this is the great Northwestern novel? Or perhaps that book hasn’t yet been written. What do you think?

     – posted by David W. 

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