It’s not often that you encounter a fictional character who could have served you cold cuts at your neighborhood Fred Meyer. But if you live near Lake City, as I do, Thomas Kohnstamm’s debut novel tells a tale so local...that you may want to look over your shoulder the next time you go grocery shopping to see if the book’s ne’er-do-well narrator is lurking there ... It’s easy to see that Lane’s attempts to redeem himself will not go as planned. Less predictable are the complications Kohnstamm throws his way, which turn Lake City into a caustic satire on class privilege and deprivation ... The novel loses a little of its edge in its later stretches ... But the portrait Kohnstamm offers of a Seattle backwater trailing in the wake of the Emerald City’s rising glamour is indelible.
This is a book that embraces Gary Snyder’s unofficial title as 'The Poet of Lake City.' Hell, the very first page of the story reads like a poem praising the strip malls and run-down garages of Lake City Way ... a story as pugnacious and as charming as its protagonist. Lane is awfully likable for an unlovable guy ... Yes, this is one of those books, about a white dude who drinks and fucks everything up for himself. But Kohnstamm is always very clear that Lane is not someone to be idealized—he’s not a gonzo Beat saint in search of an adoring public. Often, Lane is the unwitting butt of the book’s jokes ... the kind of introspection that you wouldn’t find in a novel about a clueless white protagonist that was written in 2001 ... Lake City makes a compelling case for the neighborhood as 'deep Seattle,' as Kohnstamm puts it—a place where the 'true' spirit of the city lives on. But at the same time, the book juxtaposes the authenticity of Lake City with Lane’s comical attempts to be taken seriously.
Kohnstamm attempts to use his gifts of description and characterization—which are considerable—to render the break rooms, beer fridges, trailer parks, and working-class people of his hometown. The idea is to find the soul of Lake City, the thing that makes it particular, unique, worthy. This effort is moderately successful ... Kohnstamm is at his best when he's sending up a special kind of virtue-signaling liberal who claims to live their life in constant service to the oppressed, but who doesn't actually do anything for them. The relationships between the characters bring out this underlying critique, but the narrator, weirdly, gets in the way ... The author's desire to highlight Lake City's uniqueness also leads him to manufacture regionalisms ... Such overblown regionalisms and reaches for 'authenticity' feel desperate, which is maybe the most Seattle thing about the book. But local readers will likely enjoy the familiar locations and scraps of lore.
[Kohnstamm]'s delusional, narcissistic antihero and unsympathetic supporting characters—some dangerously close to offensive stereotypes—don't catch many breaks as they ricochet from one nasty situation to the next, with cheap beer, repellent food (beware a riff on the composition of deli turkey), illegal drugs, and other local specialties never far from hand. Amusing as snarky social commentary on the world of Seattle have-nots.
Kohnstamm’s fiction debut...is all at once hip, intrepid, and philosophical ... Kohnstamm’s fresh voice has a millennial groove, the story is engaging and gritty, and there’s an impressive scrutiny of personal and societal ethics.