Remnants of the past linger all around if you squint in the right direction. Jonathan Raymond’s ambitious debut novel sees the past imprinted all over present-day Oregon. Old artifacts and clues litter the landscape, even if his modern-day characters can’t exactly decode them. The Half-Life intertwines two very different tales of friendship — one lived out in the 1820s, another unfolding more recently. Cookie Figowitz, the improbably named hero of the 19th-century storyline, works as the cook for a bunch of ornery trappers making their way through the Oregon territory. Though Cookie can’t wait to see this wilderness domesticated, he drops his dreams of settling down when he befriends Henry, a restless character with a get-rich scheme that will alter the course of Cookie’s life.
A century later, the same rural area is the site of a commune — one of many that blossomed in the area in the ’60s and ’70s. By the time Tina Plank’s mom drags her to live there, the place is pretty mellow, populated by aging hippies. The only other young person around is teenage troublemaker Trixie Volterra. While Trixie radiates excessive energy, Tina is “a great connoisseur of boredom,” Raymond writes, luxuriating in the gorgeous torpor that hangs over small-town adolescence. (“There was the boredom of doing one’s homework, and the boredom of waiting for one’s friend to finish her homework so you could go outside together and endure the boredom of figuring out what to do next.”)
The Half-Life gazes upon those fierce but ephemeral attachments that evade the history books. Multiple plots elegantly veer across the sprawling terrain. Raymond weaves together divergent characters and time frames, even as he notes that our sense of historical continuity is largely an illusion. Real life is padded with tedium and lulls, whereas in movies (and books), he writes, “all the dead time could be scraped away . . . and only the significant parts left in place.” Raymond’s only major misstep is trying to cram too much false drama into this otherwise subtle tale, a distraction that clots the novel with unnecessarily suspenseful plot elements. This flaw subverts the point of the book. In The Half-Life, it isn’t the adventurers and wild ones who beckon to us but the quiet creatures like Cookie and Tina — drifting through history, never quite sure of their place, leaving behind only faint, inscrutable hints that they were here.
THE HALF-LIFE | By JONATHAN RAYMOND | Bloomsbury | 358 pages | $24 hardcover