If you're from someplace like "Lake Shitty," a North Seattle neighborhood most known for its used car dealerships and shadily managed strip clubs, everything in the culture will tell you that life is elsewhere. But if you do end up escaping to get "good" education, you hourly fight feelings of fraudulence while trying to live in a world designed for and by blue bloods who never worked for anything. Succeeding in that world if you're not from it is exceedingly difficult and morally fucked and probably impossible, but going back to your roots would count as a failure. Or would it?
These are some of the dynamics at play in Lake City, a new novel from Seattle writer Thomas Kohnstamm. The class anxiety is embodied in the novel's semi-antihero, Lane, who is, above all else, a coward. After his wife cheats on him, he "temporarily" drops out of his humanities PhD program at Columbia University and—blaming his woes on 9/11 instead of his failed relationship—moves back home to Lake City, where he tries to hatch a plan to win his wife back.
In the beginning of the novel, that plan involves drinking a lot and treating his mother badly. It ends up involving a scheme with rich lesbian foster parents from California who essentially try to legally steal a kid from his mother, a Native American woman named Inez who lives in a trailer park with her mom.
Kohnstamm attempts to use his gifts of description and characterization—which are considerable—to render the break rooms, beer fridges, trailer parks, and working-class people of his hometown. The idea is to find the soul of Lake City, the thing that makes it particular, unique, worthy. This effort is moderately successful.
There's a fine line between an accurate portrayal of the employee coat rack at the Fred Meyer and poverty porn. The narrator crosses that line a lot, most egregiously when he describes Lake City as "the mistress that grown-up Seattle kept around... the one with electric-blue eyeliner and a missing incisor... the one who is always there when it needs to drink a forty and get a hand job in a parked car and not have to discuss what it all means." I'm sure she feels the same way, buddy.
But the Fred Meyer scenes are glorious.
Kohnstamm is at his best when he's sending up a special kind of virtue-signaling liberal who claims to live their life in constant service to the oppressed, but who doesn't actually do anything for them. The relationships between the characters bring out this underlying critique, but the narrator, weirdly, gets in the way. And his obsession with linking "authenticity" to "grittiness," and then wrapping that "grittiness" in a bunch of purple prose, only reveals his distance from that "grittiness" in the first place.
The author's desire to highlight Lake City's uniqueness also leads him to manufacture regionalisms. At one point, he trademarks a "West Coast Courtesy Smile," which I'd love to see differentiated from a Midwest Courtesy Smile or just a plain old courtesy smile. Such overblown regionalisms and reaches for "authenticity" feel desperate, which is maybe the most Seattle thing about the book. But local readers will likely enjoy the familiar locations and scraps of lore.