Oregon Book Awards, K.B. Dixon’s latest

By Bob Hicks

Word started making the rounds last night about the list of finalists for this year’s Oregon Book Awards. Jeff Baker has the complete list in this morning’s Oregonian, along with the lowdown on how to vote for the special readers’ choice award. The ceremony will be April 25 at the Gerding Theater at the Armory, Portland Center Stage’s home space.

Congratulations to all the nominees in the seven categories — fiction, poetry, general nonfiction, creative nonfiction, children’s lit, young-adult lit, and theater. And a special nod to a few Friends of Scatter — George Taylor for his play Good Citizen; Marc Acito for his collaboration with C.S. Whitcomb on the stage comedy Holidazed; K.B. Dixon for his novel A Painter’s Life.

Cover image from "The Ingram Interview" by K.B. DixonAll of this is an honor, and the awards ceremony is bound to be a lot of fun. But as writers tend to do, most of these people have already moved on to new projects. Acito is shifting his attention to New York and a new life in the world of Broadway musicals. Taylor’s had another play, The Strange Case of the Miser at Christmas, on stage for a first reading. And Dixon has just released his newest novel, The Ingram Interview, through Inkwater Press.

Ken Dixon, whom I first got to know when we were both working at The Oregonian, is a drily funny and well-read fellow. When I was filling in at the visual arts desk for a while I had him write some reviews, and was taken with his well-informed and independent pieces. He wasn’t contrarian. He just knew his own mind. Only shortly before I left the paper, at the end of 2007, did I learn he was also a novelist.

Novelists of the Northwest tend to be consumed with rain and mountains and deserts and a lament for the fading of a harsh and better pioneer spirit. Their books can be as lush as the landscapes, dripping with the dew of a fragile and disappearing utopia. I have a deep affection for a lot of these writers, from H.L. Davis to Ken Kesey to Craig Lesley (especially Lesley, whose novels of the clashes and convergences of Indian and white life in the latter half of the 20th century quietly insist that attention be paid to purposefully forgotten regional and personal histories). A certain sprawl comes with the territory.

Dixon is nothing like that. His novels (he’s published four, and also a collection of short stories) are lean, tight, minimalist, quizzical, modern, urban. He’s an acute observer, with a humorous, slightly jaundiced eye, and he takes wry pleasure in playing around with literary forms. He’s concerned, if you want to get theoretical about things, with the figure of the nonconforming individual seeking identity and space against the nearly irresistible press of a slightly ridiculous larger culture — with managing the rub of what Freud referred to as “civilization and its discontents.” This is an enduring theme for novelists, of course. But Dixon’s sensibility is closer to Calvino’s than Kesey’s.  A sort of winking passive aggression distinguishes his self-obsessed heroes. He doesn’t tell stories in the ordinary sense — or maybe he does, except he leaves the reader to fill in an uncommon number of blanks. His novels are puzzles; literary games. And if you were ever to encounter a salmon in one of them, it’d be incidentally, as an item on a casually mentioned menu.

In The Ingram Interview, Dixon’s not-so-rugged individualist is Daniel Ingram, a forcibly retired English prof who spends the novel waiting, waiting, waiting for what is an obviously never-to-be reunion with his estranged wife, Emily, who has embarked on what seems a happy and fulfilling post-Daniel life. Daniel has had some sort of serious physical experience — a heart attack, perhaps — and as a result has found himself the reluctant resident of a retirement home, which quickly ejects him because he, well, he just doesn’t fit in. Not enthusiastic enough about the group games.

He goes to live with a former student, who is having troubles with his live-in girlfriend, who is less than enthusiastic about Daniel’s plopping into the middle of her less than ideal life, and eventually he moves on to another retirement home, which seems marginally more congenial to his particular approach to life. So much for plot. The other quizzicality — one that could drive you nuts if you stopped to obsess on it, so don’t — is the identity of the interviewer, who is unknown yet always seems to know what to ask when.

The events, and even most of the people, in The Ingram Interview seem to be simply the coincidental parade that passes in front of Ingram as he waits. If it’s hard to keep the characters straight, it’s because they don’t seem to really mean a lot to Ingram: they’re just there. Daniel Ingram is a man locked inside himself, and that is both his distinguishing quality and the thing that might make you weep for him if you managed to work up enough empathy for him in the first place.

The pleasures in Dixon’s novel come mostly from the perverse mundanity of Ingram’s self-revelation as he unrolls his laconic story: Mostly we argued about the weather. For all we share, we have radically different ideas about what is and isn’t an ideal temperature. Gavin says 81 degrees Fahrenheit; I say 48. This isn’t our only difference. Gavin, for example, has high expectations of others and a sense of entitlement — I have neither.

The danger in The Ingram Interview is that the particularities of Ingram’s mundane existence simply disappear in a wisp of triviality. The attraction is that this incidental, unconnected life seems, for all its particularities, so commonplace, and a clear-eyed observation of the commonplace is a most unusual thing. Dixon is a brittle writer, and this is a brittle book. But when it cracks, it’s a good idea to listen: It’s the sound of civilization, quietly if provisionally breaking apart.