Though much ink has been spilled over Seattle’s relentless gentrification, not a lot of it has been in the guise of fiction. An exception is Thomas Kohnstamm’s 2019 debut novel, Lake City, set in an Emerald City teetering between what it was and what it would become.
“This is not the Seattle of Microsoft, Starbucks, and Amazon,” the author tells us by way of introduction. “It’s nowhere, deep Seattle: Lake City.”
A congealed mass of Rainier cans and cigarette butts, trailer parks, and absentee fathers, Seattle’s northeastern borough takes on a starring role in Kohnstamm’s novel. There’s no urban revival here, not in the early aughts. Instead we find dive bars, Dick’s burgers, and bikini baristas. A claustrophobic society of high school deadbeats. Quoting the esteemed Doc Maynard in his epigraph – “Mine the miners, not the mines” – the author makes no secret of his love for vice. And it’s vice, by and large, where this novel dwells.
Lane Bueche is an incompetent aspirant who thought he’d left the Pacific Northwest behind. Then he returns to his mother’s Lake City bungalow shortly after 9/11, fleeing a dissolving marriage in New York City. “Crying, drinking, and sleeping as many hours as possible in his mom’s TV room,” the Columbia PhD candidate isn’t coping well with his change in scenery. But as we soon and often learn, Lane doesn’t cope well with anything.
Between plotting to ruin his wife’s birthday by calling in cross-country bomb threats, proclaiming himself the “Bill Clinton of Lake City Way,” and punching payphones until he draws blood, Kohnstamm’s leading man doesn’t cut a sympathetic figure. (For fans of Gary Shteyngart, this dilemma feels familiar.) About halfway through Lane’s quest for marital reclamation, as he stumbles into the University Trailer Park (R.I.P.) dressed as Santa Claus, “Using his bottle of Fred Meyer pinot noir to keep the thorns at bay,” we realize that the author might not be rooting for his protagonist, either.
What Kohnstamm does achieve – with flying colors – is the creation of a bond between Lane and Lake City, a dark and often absurdist commentary on the way our childhood homes shape us, in particular those childhood homes between NE 95th and Shoreline.
“Maybe he was destined to be low-class all along,” Lane self-reflects. “The universe was somehow determined to make sure that nothing good happened to him. That he never got any breaks.” Why can’t Lane get any breaks? Because his neighborhood can’t, either. “The tech boom delivered Seattle to the precipice of becoming the world-class city it had always wanted to be. But not here. All Lake City has going for it are still a few good trees.”
It’s this conflict between Lake City and Seattle, between Lane Bueche and the rest of the world, where Kohnstamm hits his stride. Northwest readers will also appreciate historical digressions such as the infamous “Maynard/Denny dichotomy,” in which our city’s founders tussled over morality; commentary on the Volstead Act’s lasting civic impact; and passing rumors of Jack Kerouac, archangel of American depravity, downing a few pints at the Jolly Roger roadhouse before it burned down and became a Shell station.
Kohnstamm avoids any direct analysis of gentrification, partly because of its complexity, mostly because Lane’s too broke and disorganized to leave Lake City proper. The farthest he makes it is Green Lake, “no longer besieged with its eponymous avocado-colored algae,” where old commercial interests are “giving way to new condo developments.” (“It seems that people are realizing that a neighborhood with a huge lake in the middle of the city is a desirable place to live,” the author drily observes.)
It’s appropriate that Kohnstamm keeps the g-word at bay, for Lake City is a novel that comports itself more in the past than in the present, much less the future. Through Lane’s harebrained plan to make a couple grand, fly back to New York, and reunite with his wife — at which point her family will continue to bankroll his existence — we’re treated to a Seattle shimmering with nostalgia, albeit of the inebriated sort. Dive bars still host crappy cover bands. CD jewel cases double as cocaine repositories. Marijuana must be purchased from your high school kind-of-friend (unless, like Lane, you oversleep). Despite the poor life choices of practically every character in Lake City, an all-important question lurks off-screen: would Seattle be “better” if it had remained like this?
Casting his gaze from the rich man’s urbanism of 2019, Kohnstamm suggests that, yes, in some ways it would be. Lane seems to agree.
“An earnest alt-utopia of overeducated, progressive do-gooders and amiable slacker artists,” is the pitch Lane attributes at one point to the Emerald City. “Quirky, if a bit depressed… Norway on Puget Sound.” (Queue the opening notes of Carrie Brownstein’s “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland.”)
Lane admits that 2001 Lake City might not inhabit these ideals. Nevertheless, he’s unenthusiastic about Seattle’s new direction. To a transplant making hay in the real-estate market, he says, “You think you’re the first Californian to move here with a bit of cash and think you know better than all the locals? Truth is, you – and everybody like you – are just another type of utopian. You think there’s no history here.”
“Locals?” responds the Californian. “Really? ‘Cause some white trash, fishermen and hippie burnouts found cheap land here for a generation or two? You all took it from Indians in the first place. And none of you’ll be able to afford to live here in ten years anyways.”
In his struggle to scam up enough money for an East Coast return, Lane finds himself defending his lady friend Inez and vouching for his childhood turf. His high school friends might suck, but at least they still talk to him. His mom might be undependable, but she appears to love him, at least to a laundry-doing degree. And hey, if Lake City was good enough for Kerouac, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of us?
Ultimately, it’s a fool’s errand to wonder what Seattle would be like without its tech boom, a bit like asking me if I would rather be 13 than 33. (Maybe?) Kohnstamm holds these questions at arm’s length, allowing his characters to bathe in the malty dregs of yesteryear. For someone like Lane Bueche, a role as the “Bill Clinton of Lake City Way” might be just what the doctor ordered — so long as he doesn’t get priced out and have to move to Lynnwood.
“‘Lynnwood?’ [Lane] has trouble saying the name. ‘That’s not even Seattle.’”
This was a great book! It does portrays Seattle that once was that I no longer recognize. Almost like a tale of two cities in a way.
I have to read this book. As a student at Nathan Hale High School, I knew many kids from Lake City. We never thought of it as low-income or uncool. Many of the homes were modest, certainly, but crime was low and it was a friendly small community. It hosted FrontierDays, to the delight of kids and parents. Did you know that Lake City was so named (though it would be very hard to see Lake Washington from there), because it sounded toney? ( Or, so I’m told by some historians.) Oh, and those little bungalows, might sell for close to a million today. Great review!
This is an excellent take on this fine novel. Olson gets Lake City, the novel, because he gets Lake City, the neighborhood. Kohnstamm’s book is really clever. He tells a story of ambition and aspiration in a city that will quickly leave you behind if you lack either one. We all know a Lane. Kind of a pain in the ass guy. A guy who’s well-meaning but who’s constantly sabotaging himself. We feel for him, but can’t really help him. I truly enjoyed this book.