cover image THE HALF-LIFE


Jonathan Raymond, . . Bloomsbury, $23.95 (355pp) ISBN 978-1-58234-448-5

Friendship is the theme of this ambitious and assured debut novel, which is set in Oregon and spans a hundred years of change in the region. In the 1820s, Cookie is a young man employed by a roughneck party of fur trappers as their cook. With food supplies running low, the mood is grim; on a foraging expedition Cookie discovers the bedraggled Henry, who is hiding from a band of murderous Russians, and stows him away in the chow wagon. After the party successfully reaches Fort Vancouver, the two shack up together in the woods, and Henry dreams up the get-rich scheme of traveling to China to sell castoreum oil, which they extract from beavers. In an alternating parallel narrative, set in the 1980s, two teenage girls living on a commune outside of Portland also form an alliance. Tina, a California transplant, bonds with Trixie, a girl with a troubled past. Matters become complicated on the commune when two skeletons are found on the property, setting off a political tug of war between forensic scientists and members of a local Indian tribe. As the two narratives alternate—Cookie and Henry run into trouble in China, while Tina and Trixie scrimp and save to produce an amateur film—Raymond carefully probes the delicate imbalances that develop in both friendships. The synchronicity of the two stories is subtly engineered and never belabored; convergences are balanced by some unexpected divergences. Whether chronicling the hardscrabble culture of settlers in new territory or the discontent with sprawling overdevelopment generations later, Raymond supplies a wealth of detail about the Pacific Northwest, making plain both the rewards and sacrifices of progress. When tragedy strikes for both sets of friends, it feels as natural as the landscape, surely and deftly closing Raymond's circle of ambiguity, loss, loyalties and love. Agent, Bill Clegg . (May)