One of our local weeklies, The Portland Mercury, hit the streets with a rarity that should be a commonplace: a meaty excerpt from a local writer’s novel, in this case the estimable Kevin Sampsell‘s forthcoming A Common Pornography.
I plucked the free tabloid from the now-traditional coffeeshop stack and boarded the Tri-Met bus. I’ve known Kevin for many years. He is a regular pillar of the Portland literary scene, a restless publisher of chapbooks and pamplets and weird anthologies and the kind of small-scale, off-kilter work that no longer finds a welcoming home among the major houses (so called). In his publishing guise, Kevin is a perfect example of why the Book ain’t going anywhere, no matter what the technophiles say: a nimble, flexible and passionate partisan of the word, willing to hack it out in the underground for as long as it takes.
And as a writer, Sampsell might be of interest to those who fear the modern American male novelist suffers a depressed libido, because he tends to seek out lust’s most awkward and steamy moments. This excerpt, for example, examines the adolescent pornography habits, deflowering and heartbreak of a poor kid in Kennewick, Washington, part of the sprawling miniature high-desert Houston known as the Tri-Cities.
Now, normally I wouldn’t consider Sampsell’s straightforward style, or his lower-lower-lower-middle-class social realism, quite my cup of chai. But my upbringing in the Inland Northwest, that vast, brawny and sparse undeclared province that encompasses both Sampsell’s native Palouse Prairie and my native Western Montana (yes, capital W), makes me part of this selection’s target demographic. I didn’t live a childhood quite so thin-stretched and austere as the one Sampsell portrays, but I certainly knew kids who did. And with parents who scraped by for years in feeble colonial economy of the northern Rockies—working in timber or at the poky local shops or in welding supplies or as a bookkeeper at a diesel repair facility or what have you—I wasn’t far off. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Tri-Cities and places like them—places built up around nuclear power plants or paper mills or coal slag heaps, where astonishing and uncompromising natural beauty grinds up against strip malls and tract housing. In some indefinable way, this outtake captures the particular function of teen sex in those environs: the interaction of mustachioed, Mustang-driving ex-boyfriends, half-cocked fights at the mall and random hook-ups with genuine romantic yearning in the lower socioeconomic divisions of the West.
This is by way of saying that I’m a stone-cold sucker for any story that includes the phrase “Before I moved to Spokane…,” the precise combination of parochial horizons and vaulting aspiration that drives Northwest culture. Portland and Seattle are full of exiles from Montana, Idaho, Alaska, eastern Washington and southern Oregon—native-born Cascadians who couldn’t quite bear the thought of leaving, so opted for the homeland’s own metropolitan options. (Maybe it’s the same in Vancouver, though that made-up international boundary—established by the 1846 Oregon Treaty, as everyone knows—has a way of making Canada a whole other country, so I can’t be sure.) We like to front like we’re all cosmopolitan and forward-looking, but we always carry the old country, where you buy your Carhartts at the feed store next to Target and get the big movies a week late, inside us. We need occasional reminders that we live on the border between the Pacific Rim and the Wild West.
I read the excerpt on the bus, sitting next to a guy who had a baby pitbull in his shoulder bag, behind a hippie kid reading Sustainable Industries Journal. Then I disembarked and went to the new Italophile espresso shop. It was a perfect Northwest moment.