“Deadpan” doesn’t seem quite the right word to describe “My Abandonment” by Peter Rock, a professor of writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, but it’s hard to know what other word to use. It’s the fictionalization of a true story: a man was found with a pre-adolescent girl, who said she was his daughter, and they lived together in a “hooch” in Forest Park, which is a real place. I grew up in Portland and was very familiar with Macleay Park and the Audubon grounds which are continuations of the forest a little closer to town. Forest Park is huge. In fact, if you count the powerline corridor that is cut from Forest Park to the Oregon Coast, creating a long narrow ecosystem that crosses the Coast Range and sustains a small elk herd, there is no other municipal park I know of that is so large.
When I was working for Multnomah County Animal Control in the Seventies, an old Southern woman up the street from where I grew up in NE Portland ran a herd of several hundred pigs up there in Forest Park. Packs of dogs also lived there. Probably still do. But most vividly in my mind is the memory of one twilight in the Nineties when I was driving to my cousin’s house in the West Hills along the street that borders Forest Park and realized that a steady stream of walkers with backpacks and bike riders with panniers were returning to their camps in the Doug fir and heavy undergrowth of the park. This book is a little bit fiction but very much based on fact.
One of the interesting factors in this book that removes judgment, making it deadpan or at least more nonjudgmental, is that the issue of sex between the man and the girl is removed. Noted, hinted at, but removed. This man acts as a true father to the girl, though his understanding of life is totally anti-social, set-apart, unreal or maybe half-real. Certainly paranoid. Portland, like many mega-cities, is full of hidey-holes, squatter spaces, as well as people who will tolerate and even assist the dispossessed.
My brain-damaged brother was thrown off the cousin’s ranch where he had taken refuge. A cop stopped and talked to him in the middle of the night as he left walking along the highway with his backpack and staff -- then let him go. He was breaking no law. When he had a heart attack in Eugene, people took him to the hospital and even took him into their homes in the interval until the second fatal attack. He could have come here, but he didn’t want to. I didn’t even have an address for him. His choice.
When we kids were small, we were visiting that same ranch when one of the hideouts of Steve Solovich was found. Steve was an old guy, a veteran, who refused to believe that the war -- whichever one it was -- had ended. Solitary, he lived on deer meat and bean patches. Sometimes he would sneak into a barn and milk a cow. In that part of the world no one pulled blinds at night and sometimes, people reported, they would be on the couch watching television, have a funny feeling, and turn in time to see Steve standing just outside, also watching. Authorities didn’t capture him until age made him begin to feel the labor of clearing gardens, so he stole dynamite. I’ve got the clippings my aunt saved. We were fascinated.
Clearly it is possible to return to a hunter/gatherer mode of life if one is tough and resourceful and many of our apocalyptic novels explain how the author would do it. This is not an apocalyptic novel, except in terms of of person-by-person, people pushed to the edge and on over, by economics or temperament or maybe trauma. But we study the tales, maybe to pick up some tips just in case. Many women can imagine becoming a bag lady.
In a way this is a “virgin spring” story -- that is, a man who is damaged somehow is redeemed and loved by an innocent girl. Ordinarily in the mythic versions things turn out a little better for the man than they do in this story. In the comments on Facebook pages I constantly read fantasies on the part of young women (whose little symbols are often provocative photos of themselves not quite dressed) about what one described as Frankenstein wandering the moors, disconsolate because everyone is terrified of his appearance until a young blind girl can’t see him and innocently offers him a flower. It’s Beauty and the Beast. The story is meant to encourage compassion for those who are ugly or different or just scary. But it often backfires when these innocent and “blind” girls pick out a true monster and try to save him. There are dumpsters in Forest Park where half-burned bodies are found -- young women.
“My Abandonment” is mostly about cautionary measures: how to be on guard against danger, which is never quite defined except that police are bad news and one should stay out of the “men’s camp” where the really rough homeless ones keep a careless dirty place. One man has gone back to being an animal, but the young girl is not afraid of him. Her mainstay and magic talisman is a little model of a horse that is opaque on one side and transparent on the other so that one can study its organs. So is this story about the anatomy of society? Whose abandonment is it, really? Was the girl abandoned or did she and her father abandon us?
Peter Rock, who is a professor at Reed College, explains his book on YouTube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8E5CcZPJ14 Handsome even with his collar half-turned-under so any woman would want to pull it straight, he says his imagination was simply captured by the incompleteness of the real story, which he recreated and finished in the novel. But if you know about Reed College, a place where brilliance and intellectual inquiry are highly valued, there has to be more going on. In the first place, why are people more willing to live under a tarp in the forest than in subsidized housing? In the second place, why are men kidnapping young girls? The cases keep popping up -- sometimes relatively benign and other times true sexual slavery. Beyond that, I keep seeing YA novels about iconoclastic girls written by young educated men. What the heck does that mean?
In Portland when I was doing Animal Control, going door-to-door to solve complaints, Patty Hearst was being held prisoner somewhere in town. We were afraid we’d stumble onto her. I keep saying the Seventies are coming back, but what is it that triggers this idea of holding a young woman captive? And why are the young women convinced that a dangerous man is someone they should approach and redeem? Haven’t they read how Patty’s story went? She wrote it out for them, a cautionary tale. Wealth was no protection.