Jon Raymond is one of Portland’s finest wordsmiths. His writing spans TV, film, short story, novel, art criticism, and a hefty array of magazine work. His new novel, Freebird, is the story of a Californian Jewish family entangled in clashing politics, unspoken histories, and personal dissolve. The Singers are Holocaust survivor Sam, his contemptuous children, Anne and Ben, who’ve grown awkwardly distant, and Anne’s aimless teenage son, Aaron.
We spoke at a coffee shop in Southeast Portland as the city was just barely melting from a massive immobilizing snowfall and the looming inauguration was pressing an even heavier weight. We got into politics, human behavior, American Judaism, and some cosmic shit.
The Rumpus: Everyone in this book behaves in surprising ways, especially siblings Anne and Ben. Did you compose them to hold complex polarities as an experiment in character, or do you think people just are this complicated and contradictory in ways we may not see or admit to?
Jon Raymond: I would say yes to all that. They were composed specifically as opposing poles in what I think of as an American political dynamic. Ben very much embodies a conservative and militaristic mode of thinking and feeling. And Anne embodies a more justice-oriented, nurturing, and also bureaucratic deal. I wanted them both to be at a moment of crisis in their intellectual and spiritual lives. So in a sense they are poles collapsing towards each other.
Rumpus: How did this book start? What was the germ?
Raymond: My grandfather was a [Holocaust] survivor and his life and history were very formative to myself and my family. By the time I met him, in the 1970s, he owned a health food store in Sonoma, California and was driving motorcycles and growing weed in his backyard. The almost unimaginable dichotomy between the different eras of his life always crushed my brain on some level. That this guy who was shoveling carob chips out of a barrel and restocking yogurt popsicles could also have those numbers on his arm. It was an inconceivable juxtaposition. His experience was the main window for our family into any kind of social consciousness, or sense of history, or politics, even though a lot of it went unsaid. I wanted to write something that was about the legacy of that experience in subsequent generations. I was thinking about phylogenetic memory and how certain histories and traumatic events are remembered by later generations, especially now that the first person memory is almost totally extinct.
Rumpus: This book is about a Jewish family. I’m asking as an East Coast Jew (from the South, which is it’s own subculture, as I’d think being a West Coast Jew is too), did you grow up with a Jewish identity?
Raymond: I grew up with very little religious training. Actually, like, none. I think what Jewishness I felt as a kid stemmed almost entirely from this atrocity in our family tree. That said, I do have a Jewish grandma and grandpa so there are certain cultural habits and foods. Actually, my mom claims that she Bar Mitzvah’d me herself when I was thirteen on a family vacation.
Rumpus: What!? What kind of hippy statement is that?
Raymond: Exactly. There was nothing remotely orthodox going on. It’s funny, we were initially in California and then we moved up to Oregon when I was eight, and I think the radical absence of Jewish life here might have strangely made me feel more Jewish. It’s a contextual thing I guess. As a book person and a movie person, I feel Jewish. My Dad was more Buddhist than anything, and on the West Coast I’ve often had the impression that Jews become Buddhists. I think, if anything, my religion has more to do with California consciousness, vibrations and energy. My wife isn’t Jewish. There’s nothing ceremonial going on at our house, I mean, occasionally a candle gets lit. But, definitely, my Judaism is an ongoing relationship, one that remains to be consummated.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about guilt, karma, and family ties. Anne has these guilt-ridden ideas that the duplicitous havoc she wreaked sidling up to the enemy in some karmic way brought on her family’s suffering. It makes me think about how we create stories about ourselves based on our actions and external events, and how we plot our individual responsibilities within a complex family heritage. Do you hope people come away thinking about any of that after reading this novel?
Raymond: Absolutely, yeah. Ben represents a certain full-throated and impassioned homicidal political urge. Anne is a much more true-to-life representative of compromise and the moral laziness that can take over a life, which I think is much more the pitfall for a modern, progressive person. She has this unfocused ethical gooeyness. Her fiber has been weakened to the point that now she’s available to ever grander compromises. But the compromises are abstract and distant enough that she never really has to feel accountable for them either. It’s part of the world she lives in. I think these large bureaucratic institutions are created in some way explicitly to inoculate anyone from actual responsibility, to create a much more diffuse and blameless kind of society. I think of her as the embodiment of some kind of amoral, progressive torpor. I mean, I relate to her more than Ben. My life resembles hers more than Ben’s.
Rumpus: Ben’s chapters are written through the eye of a Navy SEAL. You’ve written other scripts and stories about the frontier days and all types of people and places. How do you like to conduct research, or do you?
Raymond: I can be dismissive of my own research because it’s not exhaustive by any means, more like cherry-picking certain stories and vocabularies to create some semblance of realness. I’m sure a real military person would find many gaping holes in the book. But I hope that for a general reader, like myself, the SEAL stuff reads as if there’s some depth to it. Similarly for Anne’s municipal bureaucracy. I spoke to some city government people and read some books and then when the particular idea of this wastewater privatization scheme presented itself, I knew it satisfied the needs of the narrative. I guess a lot of it is that: researching enough until you know what you need.
Rumpus: A treasured family heirloom, several roles of gold coins, are the only tangible evidence of Grandpa Sam’s quieted Holocaust survival and younger life. Because of them, Sam and Aaron end up injured, nearly arrested, and closer than before. It’s hard to know how to process the loss and what to say about it. Anything you’d like to say about the moral here, or, the consequence of losing the gold?
Raymond: The gold thing actually comes from my family. My grandfather had a few rolls of gold that he kept in a safe deposit box, as did a lot of people of that generation. They kept a little gold in case everything collapsed. And so when my grandpa passed away we were faced with the question of how to get that gold up to Oregon. The idea of my mom driving that box of gold from California seemed so funny and ripe for drama. To me that gold in the book is a McGuffin in a way. It represents a tie to history, that psychic presence of potential catastrophe, but as wealth, as gold, it doesn’t mean that much. It has more to do with what Jonathan Raban, the writer in Seattle, says in one of his books. “Any city is only ever six hours away from anarchy.” Something to that effect. For survivors of that era, that sense of imminent collapse is always there.
Rumpus: There’s a risky chapter in your book that takes place while Ben’s in an altered state. The language gets glorious and wild and the images just kaleidoscope in the best way. Did you foresee that scene when you started this project or did it come about at some point through designing Ben’s story?
Raymond: I’ll be curious what people make of it. I had to defend it a bit. It’s a strange enough extension from the rest of the book that it’s noticeable, for sure. Part of it is a structural thing. The chapters are kind of going in this rotation, character to character, so the choice was either to forego a Ben chapter or to ponder the next step. I love that chapter. If people don’t like it, they can just fuck off. It’s really indebted to Denis Johnson’s book, Angels, I’ll admit, which is an insanely gorgeous book.
Rumpus: Ben’s mind goes to some incredible places. Do you see it as playing out a heaven and hell scenario?
Raymond: I see it as ambiguous. That scenario definitely puts people off. But there’s a pronounced theological component that opens the door to a posthumous consciousness of some kind, and I was okay with that. I feel like it’s a God haunted book. I found once you start writing about God it’s really fun. It’s like a rock singer saying “baby.” “Baby, baby, baaayy-by.” You start saying “God” on the page and you don’t want to stop.
Rumpus: What was it like writing that scene?
Raymond: Overall this book was a fun experience, which hasn’t always been the case. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book but it was a good writing experience. Particularly the last handful of chapters were intense, and involved a lot of weeping.
Rumpus: Weeping, on your part as the writer?
Raymond: Yeah. Which, again, is not a sign of a good book. I probably cried writing my crappy teenage poetry, too. But, for whatever sort of personal reasons, I felt like I was getting deep on some stuff. That chapter was surreal, and really broke from the normal laws of nature that my writing usually obeys.
Rumpus: Since we are getting into the more mystical and spiritual elements of the book, I want to hear anything you want to tell me about faith and god.
Raymond: I guess I will say, going back to the Judaism questions, there are mental reflexes or patterns that I think of as Jewish in my own feelings about mysticism and theology. Kafka is someone I very much revere. If I believed in holy texts I’d go to him as a touchstone. Not that I read Kafka all the time at this point. In a way, this is what I most want to talk about and it’s the hardest to talk about. The book holds a vengeful drive that’s very old testament in some ways, that angry, even arbitrary bloodletting. But also a bargaining, conversational relationship to the divine that could be construed as almost Talmudic. I guess you could say that. Ben’s theology is a cruel, desert theology. With definite American overtones. Anne’s theology is more comfortably rabbinic. I wonder if that makes any sense.
Rumpus: Your book was written at a more hopeful time than we are in now, politically speaking, where people were maybe diametrically opposed to each other but not faced with the degree of ineptitude we are steeped in now. Portlanders will be heading to your celebratory Powell’s reading fresh from protests on Inauguration Day. The Women’s March will start the following morning. Anything you want to say about hope to your readers here, or any political discourse you want to share?
Raymond: This book is so entangled with politics. I wanted to channel my own internal political monologue in some way to get it out of my brain. I’m not happy that the themes of the book have become more relevant as the publication date nears. Most of it was written in 2014 or so, before the whole Trump thing began. As people paying attention know, the rise of Trump and Trumpism is not an aberration or sudden kind of phenomena.
I don’t know what I can really offer in terms of hope. I don’t know exactly where this story goes. I don’t know how you pull back from it now that the machine’s going. It’s like watching a very compelling and terrifying novel unfold where all the foreshadowing tells you that something pretty terrible is in store. I’ll say this: we need a better story.
Author photograph © Michael Palmieri.