It will be easy for most readers to identify with the tension that builds early on in Jon Raymond's new novel, Rain Dragon (Bloomsbury, $16). The narrator, Damon, and his girlfriend, Amy, leave Los Angeles in search of a home in the Pacific Northwest. They're tired of city life and want to find something earthier, more authentic. Specifically, they want to join a commune, something far away from the internet and commercialism, where people can live freely, simplify their souls, and finally—finally!—catch their breath. Who hasn't longed for a simpler life, somewhere else? The Northwest—hell, even a Northwest city like Seattle—is full of people from places with long histories looking for a relatively blank slate on which to write a little history of their own.
Of course, finding a commune that jibes with your personal philosophy is harder than it sounds. Damon explains that after a long search, he and Amy were left with "an herbal tea factory up in Bellingham [that] didn't seem very enticing" and Rain Dragon, an "organic farm in the foothills of the Cascades" that for three decades had "been churning out excellent yogurt and yogurt-based products," as well as "award-winning cheeses and holiday eggnog." When they arrive, Amy immediately falls in love with the idea of beekeeping and creating a line of organic honey-based products.
For Damon, though, the simple life is not that simple. It turns out that, after an existence devoted to education and office work, manual labor doesn't come easy to him. He feels unuseful, unliked, and strangely out of sync with everyone around him.
Raymond is probably best known for the movies he's written (Meek's Cutoff, Old Joy) and adapted from his own short stories (Wendy and Lucy). His readers expect a certain ponderousness, a Carveresque interior life, and the lush vegetation and brooding skies of the Northwest to figure heavily in his fiction. Rain Dragon, at first, is a showcase for Raymond's comfort with the natural world, populated as it is with "chittering" squirrels and glowing gray skies and restless woods decorated with invisible cobwebs. But for Damon, Rain Dragon just isn't home. He certainly tries to feel purposeful:
To the untrained observer, it might have looked like I was just laying tile in some moldering brick hut in the middle of a rain forest in the western foothills of the Cascades, but in fact I was doing a lot more: I was building a new world here.
But that enthusiasm only lasts for an hour or so, until Damon proves to be as incompetent a tile-layer as he is a shoveler of dirt, or a dishwasher, or a carpenter. At Rain Dragon, he's as ineffectual as a toddler. So much for the new world.
Finally, in what feels like a last-ditch effort, Rain Dragon CEO Peter Hawk, a charismatic older man who, with a bit more ambition, would probably be a cult leader, throws Damon into a marketing meeting, and the talk and strut of branding ("event coordination, the art of the press release, the mystery of buying media") comes naturally to him. And here Rain Dragon takes a very strange crook for a Jon Raymond joint: The natural world fades almost completely away.
Damon and Hawk feed each other a steady diet of public relations–speak and self-helpisms. Soon, the dirt and the plants and the thrum of "natural" life are gone completely. While pondering "label copy for the new line of boysenberry kefir," Damon reflects, "I was just pulling my thoughts together, pondering alternatives to the tired word organic." There is some acrid satire of Northwestern stereotypes spread generously around Rain Dragon ("'You haven't been to Chichen Itza?' I heard Emilio scold a buxom teenage girl in combat boots. 'Such an incredible culture. You know the Aztecs used to wear the flayed skin of their enemies until it rotted off their backs.'"), but this isn't just a Portlandia sketch given a couple hundred pages to roam free.
To understand what Raymond's getting at here, you have to first consider his long history with regionalism. The climate and nature and temperament of the Pacific Northwest is as necessary to his writing as words and punctuation. Somewhere around the time that the characters of Rain Dragon pull away from the earth and enter an artificial, ironclad cocoon of corporate-speak and stale chain-store coffee, it becomes apparent what Raymond is doing. When we meet them, Damon and Amy are pioneers, traveling a great distance to come to the fertile Northwest in search of a new beginning, some sort of reclaimed innocence that the giants of American literature, from Whitman and Hawthorne onward, have insisted is possible. Soon enough, human desires—a need for security and familiarity—intercede, and, as the pioneers discovered, all this lush, gorgeous beauty has to make way for progress.
A lesser author would phrase what happens next in Rain Dragon as a spoiling of Eden, a tragic fall of man. Raymond understands that the truth is more complex, and infinitely more interesting, than that. This is not an up-or-down proposition. The thing about beauty and novelty and balance is that we get used to it. We take it for granted. We're always looking for the next paradise, so we can make ourselves tired of it again, and move on.