The scene that opens the novel is as Northwest as the rain. A river forms in the Coast Range of western Oregon, drawing sustenance from the gray skies, the verdant countryside, the overgrown slopes tilting toward the Pacific Ocean.
“Metallic at first,” the author writes, “seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips. Closer still, it flattens into a river, flat as a street, cement-gray with the texture of rain.”
A more Northwest sort of opening for a novel is difficult to imagine, which may be why “Sometimes a Great Notion” by Ken Kesey tops the list of the 12 Essential Northwest Books chosen by a group of writers, booksellers and others in the book trade from throughout the region. Included in the group were such notable Northwest writers as David Guterson, Ivan Doig, Jon Krakauer and William Kittredge.
Their assignment, at the request of the Post-Intelligencer, was to compile a list of the 12 books that best capture this varied region. Pick the dozen books that someone starting a Northwest library should begin with, for example, or the dozen books that a well-versed Northwesterner should have read.
Eligible for inclusion were books written by Northwest authors or books about the Northwest.
The 35 participants in the survey nominated 210 different books, everything from Kesey’s powerful novel to such unusual picks as James Beard’s “Fish Cookery” to the Dave Thompson’s “Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story.” The final Essential Northwest dozen were those books named most frequently. Included were six novels, three works of non-fiction, one short story collection, one poetry collection, one novella.
The list of books they chose is weighted heavily toward well-known books of the last two decades, which is not exactly shocking, since readers’ memories are often short.
But the list does include its share of surprises, perhaps none more than the pre-eminence of Kesey’s “Sometimes A Great Notion.” It was named by almost one-third of the participants, and easily bested Kesey’s better known first novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” That verdict was readily supported by the author himself.
“I think ‘Sometimes A Great Notion’ is the best thing I’ll ever write,” Kesey said recently from his home in Pleasant Hill, Ore. “Writing it was much different from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ which often seemed like filling in the blanks.
“‘Notion,’ to my mind, is a great piece of work. People sometimes ask me why I don’t write something like that again and I reply that I simply can’t. I can’t keep all that in my head at once anymore. Why, on ‘Notion,’ I used to work 30 hours at a stretch - you’ve got to have youth to do that.”
Kesey’s hard-knuckled tale of an Oregon logging family might well have been expected to make the list, but topping it was something else again. Still, as the participants pondered their lists “Sometimes A Great Notion” kept coming up.
Among its most fervent fans is Bruce Barcott of Seattle, who studied 300 works of Northwest literature in compiling “Northwest Passages,” his 1994 anthology of the region’s best writing since the first natives told their campfire tales. Barcott says “Sometimes A Great Notion” has “Shakespearean themes played out against a raw, burly Oregon backdrop. Still the heavyweight champion of Pacific Northwest novels. Huge, bold, sprawling, brilliant. Unrivaled, unchallenged, unsurpassed.”
Bryan Di Salvatore and Deirdre McNamer, spouses and writers in Missoula, describe Kesey’s novel simply as “the region’s ‘Moby Dick.”’
The next two books on the essential Northwest list are hardly surprises.
Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” an elegiac tale of family and fly fishing in Montana. David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars,” the Bainbridge Island, Wash., writer’s lush recounting of island crime and punishment in the aftermath of World War II and Japanese internment, is the reigning popularity champ of recent Northwest fiction, as well as winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Of the four books tied in fourth place on the essential Northwest list, three might be considered surprises. The exception is Timothy Egan’s “The Good Rain,” surely the most highly regarded non-fiction tour through the Northwest territory in recent years, especially for its evocation of a suddenly “discovered” region caught in a whirlwind of change.
Murray Morgan’s “Skid Road,” a rollicking look at the characters who shaped early Seattle, is the only work of history to make the essential list (“The Journals of Lewis and Clark” and Jonathan Raban’s “Bad Land” just missed).
“Making Certain It Goes On,” the collected poems of the late Richard Hugo, is the only book of poetry on the list and a fitting choice indeed, considering his career and impact, the way his darkly realistic poems touch on everything from the Hoh Rain Forest to West Marginal Way. Hugo had more books (five) nominated for inclusion on the essential list than any other writer.
As John W. Marshall, poet and co-owner of Open Books poetry bookstore in Seattle, commented, “There is probably no more essential Northwest writer than Hugo. He grew up in White Center, worked for Boeing and taught in Montana - these are the geographic facts; his poetry tells the Northwest very well.”
James Welch’s “Fools Crow” is one of the most unexpected books on the list. The Native American writer from Montana, who studied under Richard Hugo, received several awards for his novel written from the perspective of a small band of Blackfeet Indians in 1870s Montana, but it has usually seemed a kind of underground favorite.
Writer Molly Gloss of Portland - whose own novel of Northwest pioneer days, “The Jump Off Creek,” is rapidly rising in esteem, almost making the essential list - said of Welch’s novel: “Much more than an historical novel, this is a stunningly beautiful and rich evocative book that illuminates our path into the past.”
A much different vision of Native American life in the Northwest is found in Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” which is one of five books tied for eighth place on the list. The young Seattle writer, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, gives a new view of reservation life, where hard-edged humor helps get through tough times.
Barbara Bailey and Michael Wells of Bailey/Coy books in Seattle wrote of him: “Alexie’s writing will have a lasting effect on the literature of the Pacific Northwest. His stories, novels and poems explore the Native American experience in a bold new way.”
Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping,” a quirky coming-of-age first novel about two sisters in northern Idaho, may well be the most unexpected book of all on the essential Northwest list. It has been offered in a mass market paperback for several years, a disadvantage of sorts since trade paperback is the more common format for literary works. A new trade paperback edition will be published this fall by the Noonday Press imprint of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. The book’s standing may well have been boosted by the arty 1987 film version, starring Christine Lahti and directed by Bill Forsyth.
“Housekeeping” does seem to inspire strong loyalty among those who have read it. Editor Barcott calls it his “favorite quiet book about the Northwest,” while writer Sandra Scofield of Oregon describes it as “Idaho landscape as metaphor and destiny. A modern classic.”
“Housekeeping” also turned out to be the only work on the list written by a woman (even though contributors to the list included 15 women and 20 men).
Several contributors to the list bemoaned the lack of noteworthy Northwest works by female writers. Three novels by women almost made the list - Gloss’ “The Jump Off Creek,” Ursula Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” and Annie Dillard’s “The Living.”
The final books that did make the list include two seeming sure things: Ivan Doig’s beloved Montana memoir, “This House of Sky,” and Raymond Carver’s collected short story tour de force, “Where I’m Calling From.” Less well-known, especially outside his native state of Oregon, is Portlander Craig Lesley’s “Winterkill,” a novel featuring an Indian rodeo cowboy who confronts his dwindling career and family crisis in Eastern Oregon.
Three other highly regarded novels were near misses for the essential Northwest list: “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff (coming of age in Concrete, Wash.); “Another Roadside Attraction” by Tom Robbins (1960s high jinks in the Skagit Valley); and “A New Life” by Bernard Malamud (a New York newcomer adrift at a Northwest small college in 1950, a delightful satire set at a thinly disguised Oregon State, where the late great writer once taught).
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ESSENTIAL READING The 12 Essential Northwest Books (in order): 1. “Sometimes A Great Notion,” Ken Kesey, novel, 1964. 2. “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean, novella, 1976. 3. “Snow Falling on Cedars,” David Guterson, 1994, novel. 4. (tie) “Fools Crow,” James Welch, novel, 1986. “The Good Rain,” Timothy Egan, non-fiction, 1990. “Making Certain It Goes On,” Richard Hugo, poetry, 1984. “Skid Road,” Murray Morgan, non-fiction, 1951. 8. (tie): “Housekeeping,” Marilynne Robinson, novel, 1981. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” Sherman Alexie, novel, 1993. “This House of Sky,” Ivan Doig, non-fiction, 1978. “Where I’m Calling From,” Raymond Carver, short stories, 1988. “Winterkill,” Craig Lesley, novel, 1984.