Taking a reading on Seattle - new literary anthology gives us a view of the city in prose

Literary anthologies, if they serve their purpose, should open up doors to the larger works of the writers featured within.

From that angle, "Reading Seattle: The City in Prose" succeeds.

Literary anthologies also have built-in limitations. Just when the reader's interest is aroused it's time to stop. On to the next author - reading-pleasure interuptus.

Edited by Peter Donahue and John Trombold, "Reading Seattle" contains 41 excerpts from novels, essays, reminisces and histories.

The editors have done their homework. The requisite writers, living and dead, are here: Jonathan Raban, Timothy Egan, Emmett Watson, Betty McDonald, Richard Hugo. And they've picked up on others, past and present, who deserve a wider audience: Lydia Minatoya, Matthew Stadler, Peter Bacho, Monica Stone, John Okada and Josephine Herbst, who died in 1969 and hung out with Hemingway's Spanish Civil War crowd.

Donahue's informed introduction can make one wince at times. Once again we're confronted with the hoary chestnut of Seattle shedding its "provincialism" as it produces a body of literature, Donahue writes, that has joined New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, etc. "as one of the nation's great literary cities." At least Donahue didn't bring up "world class."

"Reading Seattle," like enjoying Seattle, is best negotiated without worrying about reputation.

Some excerpts present situations that just happen to take place in Seattle. The strongest chapters give us the touch, smell, look and feel - the sheer physicality - of this place.

The Archie Binns and Murray Morgan chapters, with their sinewy and Hemingway-eseque prose, deliver the Seattle of the 1940s and 50s to the reader's five senses.

The quality of the Jonathan Raban chapter from "Hunting Mr. Heartbreak" stands out, frankly, like Mount Rainier from the rest of the Cascades. Seattle, writes the newly arrived Brit, "looked like a free-hand sketch, from memory, of a sawmill owner's whirlwind vacation in Rome and Florence.

"It was something in the disposition of the landscape," Raban continues, "the shifting lights and colours of the city. Something. It was hard to nail it, but this something was a mysterious gifting that Seattle made to every immigrant who cared to see it. Wherever you came from, Seattle was queerly like home."

Maybe it takes a foreign novelist new to Seattle to really nail it. Or maybe it takes a hometown's child's worried eyes.

While Raban finds Seattle "pliant," David Guterson, recalling his Seattle childhood in "Seattle's Son," found the place somewhat intimidating.

Mount Rainier was a live volcano. The floating bridge could sink (and finally did, in 1990). The future author remembers how he felt safe again as the family car reentered the city from Mercer Island under that quaint aspiration beveled in concrete: "City of Seattle: Portal to the North Pacific."

And there's this, as Guterson recalls the approach to the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park: "Its huge, windowless fa├žade was utterly terrifying, and the inference I made pondering it was that the building housed instruments of torture."

Here's Tom Robbins from "Still Life with Woodpecker," as the narrator takes in the First Avenue of the old days, when pawn shops and girlie joints ruled: "A slim steady rain was falling. Neon reflections on the wet concrete gave First Avenue the appearance of an underwater burial ground for parrots."

Not bad.

And: "The Indian winos, in particular, were unhurried by the weather, and she recalled that Bernard had said, 'White men watch clocks, but the clocks are watching the Indians.'"

Lynda Barry's recollection of a youthful character's picaresque wanderings through the city produces a classic Seattle epiphany near Colman Dock: "I walked to a place with a lot of tall totem poles in front of it. And that's where I found it. 'YE OLDE CURIOSITY SHOPPE. GIFTS. ODDITIES. SOUVENIRS.'

"Beside the front door was the bone with the sign underneath it that said 'WHALE PENIS.'

"I said the words very softly. I pushed open the door and a bell above me rang."

That door opened, of course, into a cracked universe of mermaids, duckbilled platypuses, shrunken heads and Sylvester, the petrified mummy.

At its best, "Reading Seattle" delivers moments like these and reminds us to take another, harder look at what's right in front of us on these familiar streets. Seattle, on its own terms, no matter what literary New York or San Francisco are up to, just might reward us for the effort.

"Reading Seattle: The City in Prose," edited by Peter Donahue and John Trombold, forward by Charles Johnson. Published 2004 by the University of Washington Press. Price: $22.50.

Mike Dillon can be reached at mdillon@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]