“I write novels about self-sacrifice and love and courage,” she says. “What would you do for someone if you were in a position to help them? How much would you give up? And what kind of love does it take for someone to say, I don’t care how dangerous this is for me, I’m going to risk it because you’re more important? All of my novels are about that.”
In Faye’s gorgeous, arresting new novel, The Paragon Hotel, a young white gun moll named “Nobody” Alice James speeds from New York on a westbound train, bleeding from a bullet wound. She’s nearing death’s station outside Oregon when a black Pullman porter named Max Burton takes mercy, spiriting her to Portland’s only all-black hotel for care and convalescence. It’s 1921, and her presence draws more than medical attention from the Paragon’s denizens, especially a comely, quick-witted cabaret singer named Blossom Fontaine.
“ ‘…I’ll take you for a tour once you’ve resumed your normal complexion,’ ” Faye writes as Blossom. “ ‘A complexion which, I must add with regret, is a cause of some concern for us, as the Paragon is simply the only Portland hotel where both the most aristocratic and most hardworking of Negroes are all invited to rest their weary heads. Oh, but gracious, you’re smiling—I mean the only Portland hotel, quite literally,’ Blossom adds with a hard glint in her eye. ‘When it comes to segregation, you may consider yourself free to whistle “Dixie” where the great state of Oregon is concerned. So you present a moral enigma to the establishment, you see, and I always adore those. Better than fresh coffee.’ ”
“Both Alice and Blossom are going through really serious identity issues, but they’re from opposite sides of the park,” says Faye, who grew up in Longview, Washington, in a bookish family that made frequent pilgrimages to Powell’s City of Books in Portland. “Alice has grown up learning how to deny who she really is, deny everything that makes her remarkable, get rid of it so that she can be an unrecognizable person. Blossom, on the other hand—the way for her to be herself has been to be relentlessly herself. [She keeps] secrets but, at the same time, she has to [express herself] or she will lose everything.”
Told by Alice in the form of “a love letter” to an unnamed recipient, The Paragon Hotel is a “double helix” of a novel, Faye says, interweaving two harrowing yet hopeful narratives that vigorously interrogate racial violence and oppression: Alice’s origin story, occurring at the height of the Sicilian Mafia’s hold on Harlem, and her Oregon story, set during the rise of the KKK.
“Part of this will disturb you,” Faye writes in the book’s prologue. “Whether it’ll be the parts you were a part of, so to speak, or the parts that are new—well, I suppose I’ll just ask after you’re finished reading. I can imagine your mug as you devour this, impatiently turning pages, orderly at first, because you’re awfully orderly, and then papers scattered higgledy-piggledy all over the hardwood.”
Fastidiously researched, rollicking, and profound, The Paragon Hotel is “a riveting multilevel thriller of race, sex, and mob violence that throbs with menace as it hums with wit,” our reviewer writes.
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and cohost of the Fully Booked podcast.