Jon Raymond

The overarching story of Portland and Oregon,” says Raymond, “is of a place where people break down or where, historically, people have either gone by accident or just gotten trapped in some way.”

This enthusiasm found its ultimate outlet in Raymond’s literary works. The Half-Life, published in 2004, tells the intertwining tales of a fur trapper in the 1820s and a pair of teenage girls as they attempt to make an independent film in 1980s Portland. Livability, which won the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction in 2009, contains nine short stories that investigate the lives of Portlanders as various as a wealthy Lake Oswego resident souring on his louche luxuries and a teenage immigrant navigating the uncertainties of retail capitalism and high school’s sexual pecking order.

One of Livability’s stories, “Old Joy,” became the treatment for the first of three collaborations between Raymond and the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. The two adapted another of Livability’s stories into 2008’s critically lauded Wendy and Lucy. In 2010, the duo collaborated on their highest-profile outing—Meek’s Cutoff. Directed by Reichardt from an original script of Raymond’s, the film describes yet another journey gone wrong: a group of settlers on the Oregon Trail led into increasingly desperate straits by their suspicious guide.

With the exception of the 1930s melodrama Mildred Pierce (an adaptation of a James M. Cain novel set in Los Angeles), Raymond’s work as a screenwriter has hewed close to the model cast by his fiction: patient, unsentimental, and enamored with the curious history of the Pacific Northwest. Apart from obvious antecedents like Ken Kesey and H. L. Davis, Raymond cites the American arch-regionalist Sherwood Anderson as inspiration for his trademark combination of lyrical empathy and biting observation.

“I sort of consciously set out at an early time to pursue a regionalist mentality,” says Raymond. “I was attracted to the old-fashionedness of it and the obscurity of it in a certain sense.”

Over the past nine years, Raymond has poured this talent for observation into relentlessly polishing the novel Rain Dragon. Damon Duncan, the protagonist, narrates with an abundant intellect undirected by the pressures of ambition. An advertising industry refugee, he is escaping Southern California with his girlfriend, Amy, to work for the yogurt company Rain Dragon. As the two fall under the sway of Peter Hawk, the company’s charismatic founder, both the shaky foundations of their relationship and their belief in the healing potential of physical labor begin to crumble.

In one of the narrative’s myriad dry ironies, Damon winds up applying the same tried-and-true PR tactics of his working life in LA to marketing organic yogurt. The success of this venture inspires Hawk to task Damon with developing a consulting business to train corporate workforces in Rain Dragon–style holistic management techniques. Damon’s discomfort mounts as his new job of selling sneakers and seducing lumber executives with notions of “meaning” begins to look ever more like his old life.

Damon and Amy stumble across moments of self-realization, but these end up damaging the pair, rather than affirming their power to change. As with many of Raymond’s works, Rain Dragon denies its characters their ambitions, offering them only the grace of the friendships that punctuate their journeys.

“I depend greatly on the experience of my friends and family to write,” says Raymond. “To me, part of the goal of writing is to bear witness to your friends’ and families’ lives, and if those struggles are the kind of information you’re getting, that’s what winds up in your work.”

Bloomsbury USA
272 pages