Anarchists, secessionists, and floundering academics! Oh my!
Keith Scribner‘s novel, The Oregon Experiment, follows Scanlon Pratt and his wife, Naomi Greenburg, as they move from New York City to Douglas, Oregon, where Pratt is ready to begin his first tenure-track position in the Political Science Department.
Immediately, tension fills the pages as Naomi tries to cope with the move. She’s eight months pregnant, misses New York, and suffers from anosmia. For Naomi, anosmia is crippling, because she used to design scents and perfumes for her career. She has no explanation for losing her sense of smell and it’s been gone since before she met Pratt. The loss becomes something the two explore in their relationship. Naomi teaches Pratt how to more fully experience scents and in return he describes the world to her. It smells like lavender pressed into the collar of a well-loved wool coat, he might say.
Due to this aspect of the characters, Scribner delights in describing the world through various scents and smells. It makes for an interesting perspective and adds rich details throughout the narrative.
Instead of soothing Naomi’s anxieties, Pratt continually adds to them. Off to a rocky start in his department, he glosses over his career prospects, and seeks out the local secessionist group to study. But can he stay objective? Lured into the ranks by a seductive, earthy, young woman, Pratt soon finds trouble. Add young, naive anarchists into the mix and more than a marriage is likely to explode.
To be unfair to Keith Scribner, I kept thinking, what would this novel be like if T.C. Boyle wrote it? It has the trappings of a T.C. Boyle novel, but lacks the crisp writing and sharp characters. It’s completely unfair and shouldn’t shadow Scribner’s work. Perhaps, part of the appeal is that it does remind me of a T.C. Boyle novel.
While the pacing dips toward the middle, the last 100 pages read quickly as events pick up. Relationships splinter, the FBI investigates, and a local anarchist, Clay, turns to domestic terrorism. It’s in Clay that Scribner’s compassion for his characters is fully expressed. At the end of the novel there are two versions of events. Events how they really occurred and events how Clay perceived them. Scribner didn’t have to do this, but his decision captures Clay in a moment of glory and fulfillment. Scribner takes a character who may alienate some readers and finds a sweet spot in resolving the plot.
The Oregon Experiment examines love, passion, alienation, and community. Scribner creates a satisfying work that sheds light on an area of society, which is usually stereotyped in the media. Overall, the novel is engaging and extremely relevant as Occupy Wall Street protests swarm into business districts across the country.