McGrouchpants (Flash Fiction for the Age of Trump, 2017, etc.) delivers a collection of short stories about 20- and 30-somethings in Portland, Oregon.
Each story in this collection begins with an image of a tarot card, juxtaposed with a title (such as “Portland Fiction Writer [Card #0: The Fool]”). The stories take readers on a journey through 21st-century Portland and all its glory of coffee shops, Metropolitan Area Express Light Rail stops, and Powell’s Bookstore readings. The characters consist largely of overeducated, underpaid people who’ve settled in the city, armed with heartfelt opinions on bands (My Bloody Valentine and R.E.M., to name a few) and the correct brand of cigarettes (American Spirit). Although many find themselves working jobs they dislike, such as the young man who answers phones for General Motors in “Keeping the World at Bay [Card #12: The Hanged Man],” they are determined, in one way or another, to survive. The scenes of characters complaining in and about coffee shops don’t always offer the most thrilling prose. But the collection is at its best when taking readers beyond such obvious places of caffeinated, rainy Northwest woe. In “Down and Out in the Portland in Oregon [Card #11: Justice],” for instance, the narrator finds himself in jail for an extended period, and he must try to pass the days as best he can with selections from the prison library. It’s enlightening to see someone at the mercy of such an indifferent system—particularly when they already have such a distrust of the world’s systems. In “Jessica Consults Her Clipboard [Card #7: The Chariot],” a young woman clings to her job going door to door for a nonprofit organization, and it’s shown to be a nerve-wracking way to make a living. All told, it’s easy to skewer a place that prides itself on its weirdness but these stories get to the heart of the people who make up that very weirdness and often create nuanced and lasting impressions.
Intricate, if sometimes-whiny, portraits of Portland’s young and restless.