The Revolution of Every Day
By Cari Luna
Tin House Books: 2013
388 pages, $15.95
By Ellen Urbani
Forest Avenue Books: Aug. 29, 2015
277 pages, $15.95
If you felt the axis of the literary world tilt recently, it was just the movement of writers and other creative types west from New York City to Portland, now often referred to as the Brooklyn of the West Coast. Portland has always been a bookish town — it wouldn’t be home to the massive Powell’s Books complex if it weren’t — but now it seems there are nearly as many writers as readers in the City of Roses.
So it should come as no surprise that a lot of good writing is coming out of PDX now. Two prime examples are the recent novels by Cari Luna and Ellen Urbani. While both are set in other cities — former homes of the authors — but they share a certain aesthetic: intensely focused, character driven stories where the setting is one of the protagonists and the prose sings.
Luna’s The Revolution of Every Day follows a group of ambitious squatters (no, that’s not an oxymoron) as they save NYC’s Lower East Side in the mid-1990s. The NYC of 20 years ago was a much more difficult place than it is today; the LES had been more or less abandoned by developers and middle class residents and had become a neighborhood of derelict buildings, high crime, and drug use. Enter a ragtag group of down-and-outers who slowly bind themselves into extended families, each living in one reclaimed building. Novelist Susan Choi aptly refers to them as “urban homesteaders.”
Revolution follows one small group of characters in one building as they try to save themselves by turning “Thirteen House” first into a home and then into a community. Amelia was a runaway taken in by Dutch immigrant Gerrit seven years earlier. Steve and Anne are the den parents of the building. While Gerrit is the silent planner and worrier, Steve is the driven rabble-rouser with the ability to work a room and make things happen. Cat is a legend of the downtown scene who runs the nearby Cat House but is now a shadow of her former sylph.
Luna puts us inside Thirteen House, allowing us to get to know the main characters, their dreams, and the fraught histories that brought them together. They are determined, even desperate, to create a communal, humane lifestyle in the former tenement that they have rebuilt with found materials and sweat equity. Doing so is the only way they can live, work, and dream in the city and avoid returning to their hometowns or anyplace else.
Gerrit’s slowly developing love for the younger Amelia remains unrequited, although she is grateful and indebted to him for saving her life. Steve and Anne maintain a marriage and partnership that is the envy of their peers but which has recently developed cracks in the foundation. Amelia is pregnant, and Gerrit is not the father. Anne is having doubts about whether the squatter’s life is really what she wants. Add to these domestic dramas the fact that Mayor Giuliani’s mission to clean up the city includes reclaiming the blocks of abandoned buildings and selling them to developers as part of a gentrification project.
After living and fighting the power with these characters for nearly 400 pages, I felt as if I had made (and then lost) several friends when the book ended on a bittersweet note (no spoilers here!). They have taken up residence in my mind and appear to be settling in permanently. The Revolution of Every Day is a novel that everyone who loves, or has ever loved, New York City needs to read.
The events of Ellen Urbani’s Landfall straddle Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. The story concerns two sets of mothers and teenage daughters, the determined and aloof Gertrude Aikens and her preternaturally bright daughter Rose, and the mentally unstable Cilla Howard and her prematurely maternal daughter Rosebud. Gertrude and Cilla are single mothers, the former living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the latter in New Orleans, having fled Alabama twenty years earlier. A freak accident brings the characters together momentarily in the aftermath of Katrina before spinning them off in opposite directions, their lives forever changed.
Urbani’s depiction of Hurricane Katrina and the nine circles of Hell it brought to New Orleans is an indelible portrait of death, destruction, and the impulse to survive. Having survived the flooding, but just barely, Rosebud is forced to set out east, headed back to the Alabama her mother left two decades earlier. Rose, separated from Gertrude, searches for answers to her dilemma and a way forward in the past her mother carefully hid from her for 18 years. Considering this tightly woven parallel plotting, it’s not surprising that there is a secret in past that connects the girls and explains much.
But the heart of this novel is Katrina and the close-up view of the days and weeks following the hurricane. Urbani takes readers from the images on their TV screens and computer monitors into the experience of those who sought shelter in the Superdome, those who attempted to flee the city, and those who stayed behind to ride out a storm they underestimated, only to face the unprecedented flooding, death, and destruction that followed. Urbani provides a wealth (perhaps an overabundance) of historical and socio-cultural background and has plenty of criticism for the politicians and other government agencies responsible for, first, protecting New Orleans and, later, saving its residents and helping to rebuild their shattered city and lives.
The other highlight of Landfall is Urbani’s prose, which manages to be both muscular and lyrical in equal measure. There is something distinctly “New Orleans” about this tender-and-tough combination that makes it the perfect voice for this heartbreaking story.
If you’re looking for other Portland writers to explore, I recommend Rene Denfeld’s transcendent novel, The Enchanted, and Liz Prato potent story collection, Baby’s On Fire. Fiery poet Wendy Chin-Tanner is also worth your attention.