Out on the fringe

Paul Constant

January 15, 2019

Perhaps it's not this way in every city, but Seattleites tend to argue that the "real" Seattle, the authentic Seattle, the place where the true spirit of Seattle really lives, is out on the fringes of the city.

Like any argument about the "real" Seattle, of course, this is all a matter of personal perspective, often driven by nostalgia. People who've lived most of their lives in Wallingford, say, are likely to claim that the sprawl on Aurora Avenue is the truest representation of what Seattle was "really" like, back in the imaginary days when Seattle was most authentically Seattle. West Seattleites might say that South Park best resembles Seattle as it was years ago, back before the city was irrevocably changed by (insert disastrous force here.) Others who've lived in the Central District for decades will probably say that Rainier Valley is where the real spirit of Seattle resides.

To the north and south of Seattle, near the city limits on either side, you'll find the areas that haven't been polished to a shine by money and development — the spaces where interesting small businesses and broken-down structures and blank spaces are still allowed to exist. If downtown and Capitol Hill have been edited into something more resembling a sleek modern American city, those fringe neighborhoods feel like an earlier draft of Seattle — a return to a messier time.

Seattle author Thomas Kohnstamm's debut novel, Lake City, makes a pretty compelling case for the titular neighborhood as the place where "real" Seattle has dug in and stubbornly refused to give up. Lake City is the story of Lane, a lifelong Lake City resident who wants to escape to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle somewhere else. Interspersed with Lane's story are long, loving passages detailing how Lake City came to be:

Seattle absorbed Lake City in the mid '50s. Like rodents feasting on fallen dinosaurs, smaller taverns overtook the roadhouses. The last of the old guard, the Jolly Roger, was torched Lane's freshman year of high school and became a Shell station. Frank Colacurcio Sr., or Frank Sr. as they called him, built a strip club empire up and down Lake City Way from Rick's to the group houses where his strippers lived to Talents West where their books were kept. But not much else changed.

This is a book that embraces Gary Snyder's unofficial title as "The Poet of Lake City." Hell, the very first page of the story reads like a poem praising the strip malls and run-down garages of Lake City Way. "To be fair, this is not the Seattle of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon," Kohnstamm writes...

It's nowhere, deep Seattle: Lake City. Moss. Lawns matted with decomposing pine needles. Mud-licked streets without sidewalks. The Seattle that fueled the melancholy of what came to be known as grunge; not the one that sells Sub Pop coffee mugs and tote bags at its international airport.

Let's be clear, though, that the tech gentrification that Lake City vilifies is nearly twenty years old. The book is set in 2001, just after 9/11, when the dot com bust collapsed into the first recession of George W. Bush's presidency. The concerns that vex the characters of Lake City are very much the same concerns that Seattle is confronting today: gentrification, inequality, authenticity. Seattle's soul is every bit in peril in the 2001 of Lake City as it is in newspapers you can pick up on the street today.

Lane works at the Fred Meyer on Lake City Way, the early Everything Store that serves as the commercial hub of the neighborhood. He's recovering from substance abuse issues, and he's nearing rock bottom. Lane has lost a shot at happiness with a young woman named Mia who represented everything that Lane was not: educated, wealthy, cultured, classy. Lane, who we meet as he's shoplifting wine, can't even get a conciliatory message to Mia through the clumsy technologies of 2001:

The problem with contacting Mia is that the house phone can't make outgoing calls beyond 206 and the unspeakable 425, 253, and 360 area codes. Lane needs 212s and 917s and 646s. Even a 347 or a 718 might do.

Lake City is a story as pugnacious and as charming as its protagonist. Lane is awfully likable for an unlovable guy — even as he's frying jo-jos for customers at the Fred Meyer deli, he's making sure that everyone nearby is aware that the job is definitely beneath him. Lane's friends are earnestly pulling for him, even as he screws them over again and again in his quest to win Mia back and move to the New York City life that he believes he deserves.

Yes, this is one of those books, about a white dude who drinks and fucks everything up for himself. But Kohnstamm is always very clear that Lane is not someone to be idealized — he's not a gonzo Beat saint in search of an adoring public. Often, Lane is the unwitting butt of the book's jokes.

Later on in Lake City, a woman chastises Lane for his identity. "You're a white dude," she tells him. "With a mom who supports you, not vice versa. You can learn to talk better and change your clothes and hair and then look like any other successful person."

Lane is offended by her claims that normalcy is within his grasp: "That's a rather parochial approach. Totally disregarding the depth and impact of the class dynamic."

That's a welcome anachronism — the kind of introspection that you wouldn't find in a novel about a clueless white protagonist that was written in 2001. In fact, Lake City feels full of modern turns of phrase that would feel out of place in the Seattle of 2001 that I experienced as a young man of Lane's age: references to same-sex marriage, Pilates, and privilege all jar the reader with the sensation that they're slightly out of synch, from a different time. Those little mentions of modern concerns remind the reader that Kohnstamm may be concerned with recreating a Seattle of a different time, but he insists on engaging modern Seattle in a deep conversation.

Lake City makes a compelling case for the neighborhood as "deep Seattle," as Kohnstamm puts it — a place where the "true" spirit of the city lives on. But at the same time, the book juxtaposes the authenticity of Lake City with Lane's comical attempts to be taken seriously. When you glorify failure and brokenness, you're likely to get more failure and brokenness in return. At some point, the charm wears off. All the authenticity in the world is meaningless if you have nobody who wants to share it with you.

Books in this review:
  • Lake City
    by Thomas Kohnstamm
    320 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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