What does it mean to live in a city that has the two richest men on earth, a median income of $80,000, and a homelessness problem among the worst in the country? Thomas Kohnstamm’s first novel, Lake City, arrived earlier this week, and while Kohnstamm set the story in December 2001, this question vibrates at its center.
Kohnstamm lays down the dichotomy on the book’s first page: “To be fair, this is not the Seattle of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. It’s nowhere, deep Seattle: Lake City. Moss. Lawns matted with decomposing pine needles. Mud-licked streets without sidewalks. The Seattle that fueled the melancholy of what came to be known as grunge.”
It is back into this Seattle that the book’s protagonist, Lane Bueche, tumbles. He’d been in New York, living with his rich wife, Mia, in her Gramercy Park apartment, and getting a PhD in social policy at Columbia (for which she’s paying). Then she cheats on him with a “management-consultant motherfucker,” who, Lane is convinced, Mia’s father used to sabotage the marriage. So with a divorce brewing Lane heads home to Lake City and nurses his wounds, waiting for things to blow over. He plans to return to New York and the posh life into which he’s ascended, hoping to eventually get “one of those jobs advertised in between the articles in the Economist.”
But Lane's version of laying low involves him chugging his mom’s stash of Carlo Rossi and her boyfriend’s stash of Rainier. While at a bar one night Lane meets Nina, a well-off California transplant who wants to get sole custody of her and her partner’s foster child. The birth mother, Inez—according to Nina a former meth-head who lives in a trailer park—wants her son back, and a judge has ruled for split custody. Nina offers Lane $3,000 to try to sabotage Inez’s sobriety.
Kohnstamm then spends much of the book skewering Lane as he tries to find the greater good in the situation even as he discovers ever-more complicating factors. Nina's racist. Inez is genuinely trying to be a good mother. But everything's tempered by the fact that Lane puts his own good first, generally.
As an intelligent, darkly comic page turner, the book does the trick. Parts of it read like outtakes from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of Poets. For a debut, Kohnstamm has a zippy sense of plot and a fine eye for detail: the color of hairs stuck to a stick of Old Spice, the yellowness of the foam cooler that holds those Rainier tallboys. He also has a flair for casually acerbic description. Late in the book Lane deals with a bank teller, who tries to send him to Moneytree since his account has been closed due to lack of funds: “Who is this lady to peg him as someone who would go to Moneytree? She appears to have copied her style from thumbing issues of Golf magazine and watching movies about Wall Street while, in reality, working as a teller at the two-bit stale-carpeted Lake City branch of Bank Whatever that still has sand-filled ashtrays in the waiting area.”
But Kohnstamm, a former travel writer, goes a little too far in translating the city to a broader audience. References to particularly Seattle things (politeness) abound. Dick’s Drive-In plays a significant role. Hell, he name checks Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks and grunge on the first two pages. This effect is exacerbated when Kohnstamm tries to wedge in chunks of Seattle history, which feel like digressions into Wikipedia articles more than narrative necessities.
But, perhaps peculiarly for a dark comedy, the book’s greatest drawback is its lightness. Some of Kohnstamm’s attempts to find sympathy in the book’s characters—who are generally comically deplorable, Lane in particular—don’t quite work. The book opens with Lane trying to use September 11 as a conversation starter in a liquor store ("Needed a little time off from my PhD... after what happened in September and all."), so why not go for the jugular? And even though Kohnstamm aims to cut again and again into the class disparity at the book’s heart, he never quite gets there. His answer, dispatched in anachronistic irony, feels pat: “Could it be that the gentrifying, homogenizing city’s last northern frontier will become the most original and authentic part of town? Was Lake City finally going to—
“Nah, fuck this place, Lane thinks.”