The Austin Chronicle

New In Fiction

Reviewed by John Davidson, January 16, 2009, Books

Livability: Stories

by Jon Raymond
Bloomsbury USA, 272 pp., $15 (paper)

Like Miranda July, whose blurb adorns the cover of his new story collection, Jon Raymond seeks to explore the subtle undercurrents that shift the lives of characters foraging through the inert gloom of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike July, who prods and pokes at the quirks and mannerisms of her protagonists, finding the sublime in the individuality of characters living outwardly uninspired lives, Raymond attempts something which may actually be more difficult: to write life as it is lived – which is to say devoid of significant drama – and to write of it without recourse to stylistic flamboyance or narrative tricks.

Many will come to this collection via the recent, widely acclaimed movie release Wendy and Lucy (which has yet to open in Austin). That film, starring Michelle Williams, was co-written by Raymond and is based on "Train Choir," the last and longest story here. It is a prototypical Raymond story, not least in terms of plot: A young woman, falling toward hard times, is driving from Indiana, through Oregon, and on to Alaska to find work in the canneries. Along the way, in a small, nondescript town, the girl's car breaks down. While waiting for her car to be fixed, she is arrested for stealing pet food and subsequently loses her dog. That, essentially, is all. Quite how this pitch played out in front of film executives, one scarcely dares imagine (apparently, well enough). Meanwhile, the penultimate story here concerns a film writer/director waiting to learn whether his film will be green-lit for production and contemplating his life choices while taking his daughter to buy new shoes.

While Raymond possesses a keen sensitivity, he has set himself a demanding task, one likely to expose the limitations of even the most gifted writer. His prose style is clear, if unexciting, and perhaps where he succeeds most is in conveying a broad cultural and specific individual ennui, while still managing to retain narrative interest. The stories' shortcomings, then, are so prosaic as to be disappointing: too much perfunctory dialogue and characterizations that are often clichéd – a wall is described as "puke-colored;" a vagrant possesses "small, reptilian eyes;" and a salesman is described as "a wiry, rodent-like man."

Finally, however, what marks just about all of these stories is the sympathy with which the author treats his characters, muddling through the gloom in search of better days.

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