The story of a city is really the story of the people who live there. In one sense, Monica Drake’s collection of linked stories, The Folly of Loving Life, is the story of Portland, Oregon, a city that looms large in the cultural imagination as a kind of well-meaning joke. The collection may end in the gentrification and hipster renaissance that we tend to associate with Portland today, but this is the city as written by a native. Drake lets us stumble down its sidewalks with the kind of warm, wry honesty that reminds us of the conflicted relationship we all have with our places of origin.
Yet, fiction isn’t ethnography. It’s the characters that really give us access to Drake’s Portland, whose stories build the narrative of place. The Folly of Loving Life deftly alternates between Vanessa and Lucia, two sisters whose lives tell a story of exodus and migration, of being stuck and perpetually sucked back into one’s hometown. Others get their say—the girls’ mother, the men they love and spar with over the years—but the relationship between Vanessa and Lu is the collection’s center of gravity. Interestingly, the two sisters rarely appear in the same story except in flashbacks and memories that swirl and create the sense of cohesion that linked stories need.
“The Arboretum,” the second piece in the collection, is the flagship story. The girls’ mother, Baysie, narrates their budding family’s move from the overcrowded city to the country. Even as the floodlights from a nearby pet emporium keep the family up at night, the old farmhouse they nickname the Arboretum holds the promise of Eden. Yet unmoored in nature, Baysie’s fears and anxieties float to the surface. Though Baysie herself doesn’t appear again until the collection’s end, her influence on her daughters is felt throughout, and her ghost-like presence is one of the main engines that drives the collection. As they age, Vanessa and Lu remain orphans, and much of their narrative is how they attempt to negotiate their own adoptions, by their city, by men, by hopefully permanent jobs and lingering addictions.
As a collection of linked stories, the threads are tight and the callbacks subtle and knowing. The characters themselves are whip-smart and self-aware; Vanessa and Lu know their story as two motherless girls for whom destitution is always lurking around the corner. Vanessa knows she is in part playing a role: she stays up late drinking peach brandy with strangers (“Honeymooning”) and sleeps with men who think they’re famous dictators (“Miss America Has a Plan”). The same thing happens with Lu, who shaves her head and struggles with eating disorders and ends up in a women’s shelter. Fucked up and she knows it, that Vanessa essentially abandoned Lu to the family inheritance is a repeated thread:
A white sheet of paper I’d been using as a bookmark was meant to be a letter I’d mail to my sister. “Dear Lu,” I wrote at the top. The timing of our mother’s breakdown, when we were both so young—but I was older, always older of course—had left us to fall in opposite directions. Dad was good to Lu. He’d said, to our mom, “Lu in particular needs you!”
I was nine. His words? They said I was free to go.
Voice operates in this collection in a playful way. Exclamation marks and asides spoken are charmingly used. Many of the stories feel like monologues, but without a forced occasion or manipulation to present an audience. Short vignettes called “Neighborhood Notes” play with point of view and playfully echo the themes from the long stories. The protagonists are full of resistance, pushing back against the tide. In the way that jazz drummers lay back on the beat to create tension with the driving force of the melody, Vanessa and Lu are not without their own sly agency. This is one way the collection’s title rings true. These stories feel like they should be depressing, but they aren’t. Throughout, there is an atmosphere of bursting, pressure-cooked, irrepressible joy. Before the collection’s end in the title story, Drake lets us see Baysie one more time through the eyes of a loving friend:
There was another guy at the bar—tall, thin. He seemed to be alone, drinking a pint. I was the one who called over to him. I said, “What do you do?”
He said, “Science.” He had the pale-cool blue eyes. He added, “Forensic Science. I solve people’s problems.”
Baysie lit up when he said that, flashing the white of her teeth, her red lipstick. She said, “I have a few problems.” She had a huge capacity for an easy happiness. He grinned back, and they fit together like puzzle pieces, meant to click.
We didn’t know how much was up ahead—marriage, the two girls. Her whole life was tied to that man.
Outside the window, one lone car passed and threw a violent blast of rainwater over the sidewalk. It was a storm, by now. Looking at that rain, I was falling deeply in love with our warm bar. What could you do, with a world like that? I was in love with every minute of being alive even as I floundered.
Like one night stands that end in STDs, or a dead man’s refrigerator full of his favorite foods, there is always a nugget of joy to remember when shit hits the fan, a reminder that it is an undeniable happiness that life is a thing to be lived at all. In a city dark and drizzly and poor, there can be light and hope, and the promise of something better is always around the corner—even if it never comes.
The Folly of Loving Life, by Monica Drake. Portland, Oregon: Future Tense Books, March 2016. 262 pages. $13.00, paper.
Laura Citino is a fiction writer and essayist from southeastern Michigan. She received her MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. She is Fiction Editor at Sundog Lit, and her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including Passages North, Sou’wester, cream city review, and others. She currently lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.