It’s 1998 in Portland, Ore., and the music scene is raw, grungy and played out in dank bars. This is Portland before the Pearl District gentrification, before “Portlandia,” still rocking in “dive bars that were not yet Dive Bars™.”
Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, “Stray City,” steeps the reader in the sounds and senses of the LGBTQ culture flourishing on the fringe of Portland society. Her protagonist is Andrea Morales, an escapee from a strict upbringing in Nebraska who finds support and validation in Portland’s “Lesbian Mafia.” But a bad breakup sends her careening into the arms of Ryan, the drummer for an on-the-brink-of-success band — and a straight guy. Unable to break the news to her friends and unable to break it off with Ryan, Andrea slips back into the “double life” she lived as a closeted teen. “I remembered how alert a secret makes you. … When you’re always watching out, you see more.”
Clearly, this situation cannot last. Before long Andrea is pregnant and, against all advice, she decides to have the baby. Abandoned by “doctrinaire” friends, she considers settling down with Ryan and giving their child a mainstream family. “Sheer inertia — mere inertia — would carry me there. Assimilate and convert, like my parents had,” she thinks. And if she did? “I would mourn it for the rest of my life.”
What about Ryan? He loves Andrea in spite of everything. But he’d rather not be a dad. The push-pull pressure sends him off on yet another road trip, not for music this time, but maybe to find a new place to settle, maybe to see if he can make Andrea miss him. In one of the book’s many poignant moments, he writes a letter to their unborn daughter, one he never sends. “I figure by the time you’re born, I’ll know what to do. Later, little stranger — ”
This is a richly satisfying read, with so many lines worthy of underlining. Johnson, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and winner of Stanford University’s Stegner Fellowship, brings both time-tested storytelling and 21st- century originality to her work. As a companion to the book, she includes an online playlist (tinyurl.com/straycitymixtape) time-stamped to the era.
The musical underpinnings carry into the story. Johnson constructs the narrative like a song, with two main sections connected by a “bridge” of voice mails, e-mails and letters never sent. It moves from 1998 to 2009 and from Portland to Bemidji, Minn., of all places, where Andrea, Ryan and their 10-year-old, Lucia, have their reckoning.
“They had lived such analog lives then. Letters, photocopied zines, videocassettes, mix tapes in a Walkman.” Now they have a daughter seeking her father online.
“Stray City” takes the reader on a journey, too, probing what makes families, whether biological or chosen. And it reminds us what it means to find home.
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader at the Star Tribune.
By: Chelsey Johnson
Publisher: Custom House, 416 pages, $25.99.
Events: 7 p.m. April 26, with music and art show, Moon Palace Books, 3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.