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Portland underground

by Brian Bromberger

Portland underground

Stray City: A Novel by Chelsey Johnson; Custom House/HarperCollins, $25.99

Lesbian novels have rarely caught the public imagination, but this deserves to change with the publication of "Stray City," a tender, insightful debut novel set in 1990s Portland. Johnson, who teaches at the College of William and Mary, establishes herself as an extraordinary new talent, the American Sarah Waters. While "Stray City" concludes in 2009, with its implied critique of identity politics it seems tailor-fit for 2018.

Closeted lesbian Andrea (Andy) Morales, 23, has escaped her conservative Catholic parents in Westerly, Nebraska by attending Reed College in Portland. She becomes part of the lesbian underground there, forming her own family, affectionately dubbed the Lesbian Mafia. Now working in a letterpress shop and recovering from a recent breakup with her older ex, she goes out drinking with friends only to discover that same ex is now dating another of Andy's exes. Feeling betrayed and drunk, she hooks up with a straight scruffy man, Ryan Coates, a drummer for The Cold Shoulder, a grunge band poised for a breakthrough. Ryan doggedly pursues her. She feels a certain attraction to him, though never denying her attraction to women.

Andy discovers she's pregnant. While she initially wants an abortion, after telling her astonished Lesbian Mafia the truth, she decides to have the baby. She must then decide the course of her relationship with Ryan. This second section is cleverly conveyed through letters, emails, and answering machine messages. The final third of the novel occurs in 2009, when 10-year-old daughter Lucia starts asking questions about her father, much to the consternation of Andy, now in a two-year relationship with the love of her life, a Brazilian woman, Beatriz. How Andy reconciles her past and its implications for her current life conclude the book.

The heart of this novel is a bait-and-switch where queers are the norm and heterosexuality is the weird aberrant. Comically, Johnson turns the closet on its head by showing how Andrea and Ryan can only date in secret, sneaking off on trips without the fear of discovery. The scene where Andrea tells the Lesbian Mafia she is not only pregnant but has been dating a straight guy is a hilarious riff on the standard coming out saga. LGBTQ people can be as prejudiced about gender and sexuality roles as heterosexuals. Andy observes, "It seems in our urgency to redefine ourselves against the norm, we'd formed a church of our own as doctrinaire as any, and we too abhorred a heretic."

Johnson gently satirizes the bias against bisexuals. For Andrea, "the bisexual was the earnest white girl in your women's studies class who had a nice boyfriend and wanted to clock in a little oppression." She pokes fun at how rigid identity formations can be.

Johnson skillfully recreates Portland in the 90s, with its punk, riot grrrl, zines, and homocore culture. But the novel's final section is weak, because it loses the winsome Andy's voice. In the rushed conclusion the Lucia and Beatriz characters feel incomplete, almost rough outlines. Still the reader won't feel cheated, as Johnson is grappling with questions of how the self we present to the world can be different from who we really are.

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