Published October 30, 2009
Reviewed May 24, 2010
At the time of writing this review, I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon for nearly two years. Desperate to get out of the Midwest I chose the city based on random whims and recommendations, and have since fallen completely in love with the Pacific Northwest. Bordered by mountains and forests, containing a hodgepodge of architectural styles and rife with solid beers and bookstores, it comes across as a welcome change from endless farmland. As much as I love my adopted homeland, however, I’m not blind to its varied faults, most of which center around how smugly self-satisfied it seems with itself as forward-thinking despite being overwhelmingly suburban and Caucasian.
I’m certainly not alone in writers pointing this out: Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” dubbed Portland “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check,” and local author Katherine Dunn said in one “Slice” column from Willamette Week that she sees the city as “a swamp of cracker bigotry dotted by islands of attempted sanity.” And now, with his novel “Pacific Agony,” Bruce Benderson has presented possibly the most brutal evisceration of the Pacific Northwest’s culture – and presented it so well residents will have a hard time taking too much offense.
Benderson’s voice for this criticism is Reginald Fortiphton, a writer of middling success who is contracted to write a travel book based on his impressions of West Coast hubs such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. However, Fortiphton’s penchant for aggravating his hosts, popping morphine tablets and lusting after dangerous young men quickly prove he’s a poor choice to write positively of anything. The novel – presented as Fortiphton’s final manuscript to his editor – presents a caustic and biting assessment of the region, as he blasts its suburban comforts with unrestrained vitriol.
Despite having a name more at home in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Fortiphton is a character with little in the way of good humor or even likability. He treats his assignment of viewing the region’s landmarks as a license to assault them, dismissing Seattle as “a squeaky-clean dormitory for fledgling dot-com-ers” and Eugene as a “minor city… true to that stunning, almost contemptuous neutrality.” When forced out into the rain to smoke, he takes a morbid view of it, proud of his “lethal weapon” and spitting at the restrictions such a supposedly liberal region implements. It’s unapologetic, and very refreshing.
This might make the book seem like nothing but railing, but “Pacific Agony” is special more for what it says about its characters than the region. As I mentioned in my review of his excellent “Sex and Isolation,” one of the things that distinguishes Benderson as a writer is his unabashed support and sympathy for a lifestyle most people would cross the street to avoid. Fortiphton disregards the touristy locations to seek out anarchists, primitivists and street hustlers, and Benderson affectionately offers up some prime examples – an anarchistic street hustler named Judas, a heroin addict descended from the Quileute tribe, a Finnish centenarian with a Communist past. As in “Sex and Isolation,” there is palpable nostalgia for a more dangerous past, as when Fortiphton bitterly curses the monotony of his whitewashed surroundings:
“Wasn’t anyone aware that the incestuous urges, Oedipal hostility and sepulchral disciplines of family life could only implode if they were kept in such an isolated state? Didn’t anybody but me miss the glory days of public transportation and public space when the city was indeed a spectacle to walk through and provided the flâneur his wonderfully tainted bath?”
And bathing in this environment leads Fortiphton to become even more depressed and delusional, eventually becoming convinced a conspiracy of Interzone proportions is being spearheaded by his editors. The last chapters of “Pacific Agony” take on a more surreal edge, as Fortiphton completely abandons his schedule and takes up residence with the homeless of British Columbia and supplanting his morphine reserves with “other substances that I will not describe in detail.” It does make the book feel somewhat unfocused, but the language also becomes more haunting as he weaves Native American myth and natural beauty into his “great, sweeping gestures of fatality.”
The book’s acerbic tones and harsh themes may be off-putting to some but Benderson cleverly balances them through the use of footnotes, presented as manuscript comments by Fortiphton’s editor Narcissa Whitman Applegate. A proud historian and descendant of Oregon pioneers, Applegate grows more and more outraged as the book progresses, to the point where she almost gloats when his lusts get the better of him. Her defensive remarks clarifying the thriving industries and historical culture in Eugene and Oregon City forms a hilarious contrast to Fortiphton’s rants, and the haughty tone she takes serves to unintentionally prove her author’s point on the region’s collective stick-up-the-ass.
In her closing remarks, Applegate lambastes the book as “A compendium of perversity and viciousness, full of distortions, sarcasm – and even obscenities!” That’s certainly all there in “Pacific Agony,” but what she clearly misses is the fantastic phrasing Benderson displays, and how the cracked lens he holds up to the region also cuts to the core of his narrator’s soul. It’s certainly not a book that will serve as an argument for moving to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a stirringly well-done character study and a wake-up call our staid culture could use more of.