The Last Dinosaurs of Portland, a prose chapbook by James R. Gapinski, reviewed by Shyanne Hamrick

The Last Dinosaurs of Portland may immerse us in Portland, Oregon, but do not be fooled: the collection of ten short stories doesn’t linger there, not really. Instead, it is a surreal version of Portland comprised entirely of bridges—those “rusted footbridges that spiral out of your bedroom window and meander toward your ex’s neighborhood” and even structures that end in realms beyond our grasp. Gapinski’s Portland is a microcosm imbued with mesmerizing impossibilities: nested attics with corpses and dolls, speakeasies with brawling and stripping dinosaurs for human entertainment, restaurants with rehearsed marriage proposals for the lonely, and alley cat tracking websites with reported sightings of saber-tooth tigers.

The collection is framed in such a way that its trajectory contains the chaos within the narrative: we enter the threshold of Portland in “Bridgetown” as if the story itself is the bridge we must cross; we leave the story in “Alley Cats” as though we are Portlanders packing our cars and driving away from the saber-tooth tiger atop the Moda Center. What threads each interposed vignette together is an undercurrent of urban hollowness and a yearning nostalgia inflicted by the absentminded hands of capitalism, gentrification, and transformation.

In “Thrift,” Gapinski delves into the appropriation of thrift shopping as a faux aesthetic trend rather than an authentic secondhand lifestyle. The curt tone of the piece leaves us yearning for the nostalgic thrift-shop musk of threadbare clothing: “I want to know why everything is clean instead of musty—even the oily rags seem clean, as if the motor oil had been replaced with eucalyptus and sandalwood essential oils. I have ten bucks, and I just need pants. That’s all. Pants.” Unlike the doctored aromas of trendy thrift shops, these stories delightfully reek of authentic remembrances for a familiar world which no longer exists and may never have been.  

Each story features, to some extent, bizarre symbolism. “Migratory Patterns,” specifically, is haunted by an avian motif. Gapinski proves neither tactless nor overwrought in the art of metaphors throughout the whole collection. In fact, he crafts such images in ways that recontextualize and meditate upon our small existence within the collective world: “The gigantic horde actually seemed a bit more colorful and densely packed than before, like the most distant tropical flocks had finally arrived, joining the gathering en masse. The birds had nothing to do with me or Alexi.” We, like the collection itself, are then proven small but not without meaning.

The shortest story of Gapinski’s collection, “Narcotic Trees,” spans a mere eight sentences that contain some of the collection’s most evocative sentiments: “Our garden grows narcotic trees. Gnarled branches bloom with dime bags. The Burnside Bridge troll keeps DEA out. The Laurelhurst Park goblin lets buyers in. We open an IRA. We send Suzie to college. We pay a price. We mulch our mistakes into fertilizer.” Gapinski’s prose never ceases to lend itself to surrealism in his endeavor to capture the most visceral truths about our contemporary world—one where many of us cater to detrimental crises for the sake of a better life. Perhaps the hope is that, should we find ourselves planted in unhealthy soil, though, may we find the power to uproot ourselves in hope for a beautiful spring.

A borderline minimalist, Gapinski, at times, renders the prose with unfulfilled details, especially when a flock of birds is simply referred to as “mostly it was peaceful—beautiful.” Such terse descriptions strive for concision at the expense of concrete, introspective specificity. Then again, we’re left to wonder if the prose cleverly imitates Portland’s emotional desolation. Had Gapinski densely packed his stories with embellished details, the collection could not have delivered such a lingering sucker punch to humanity’s insatiable yet lonesome spirit.

Portland, the author’s hometown, is a pertinent landscape for exploring the brokenness of our current social and political climate. The collection not only commentates on the ravenous tendencies of consumer culture but also on Portland’s protests against police brutality:

across the river—deep into portland’s east side—a black man is shot by a cop.

there is no spectacle.

there are no dogs, only wolves.

Such a stark contrast between animated protests and local murders of African Americans speaks to the cyclic nature of social justice movements; thrift shops, sadly, aren’t the sole fleeting trend of mainstream culture.  

The Last Dinosaurs of Portland is a delectable short story collection that leaves us satiated and somehow imploring for more. By the end, even we who have never touched down on Oregon soil will bring a piece of Portland home with us.

The Last Dinosaurs of Portland, by James R. Gapinski. Morongo Valley, California: Bottlecap Press, May 2021. 36 pages. $10.00, paper.

Shyanne Hamrick is a writer and poet. She graduated from Winthrop University with a BA in English. Her curiosities range among classic rock, horror, mythology, true crime, the surreal, and the transcendental. When she isn’t writing, you’ll find her in intense board game sessions with her family or on the porch swing with a book and her dog, Pumpkin.

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