Remnants of the past linger all around if you squint in the right direction. I sometimes pass by a drab patch of the Bowery on the edge of Chinatown and try to visualize that block as it was in the 1940s, when it housed a raucous lowlife saloon captured in Weegee’s photographs. 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 1800s, another unfolding more recently. Cookie Figowitz, the improbably named hero of the 19th-century story line, works as the cook for a bunch of ornery trappers making their way through the Oregon Territory. Cookie isn’t a rugged explorer; small and sensitive, he has a habit of crawling into his covered wagon for safety whenever a brawl erupts. Raymond offers little backstory for Cookie—all we know is that he left New England for Oregon after spotting an ad declaring it a “Second Eden.” Instead of paradise he finds arctic gloom: “Oregon was a scene of patient, unceasing violence to itself . . . a world of mold and lichens and mildew stood waiting to drag anything down before it was even begun.”
While other men forge through the West, opening new frontiers, Cookie can’t wait to see this wilderness domesticated and gentrified. But his dreams of settling down are brushed aside when he befriends Henry, a restless character already nostalgic for the recent past when the West was unspoiled. Henry devises a get-rich-quick scheme for the duo that involves extracting castoreum oil from the anuses of local beavers (a gory process) and then selling it in China for great profit. Besotted with Henry, Cookie goes along with the plan and sails to Canton—a trip that dramatically alters the course of his life.
When Cookie eventually returns to Oregon many years later, he takes up residence in a rural area that, a century later, will become 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 has dragged her to live there, the place is pretty mellow, populated by aging hippies. The only other young person around is Trixie Volterra, a teenage troublemaker with whom Tina initially appears to have little in common. 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.”) Trixie, on the other hand, radiates excessive energy and ideas. She sucks Tina into her creative vortex, and soon the best friends have launched a full-blown scheme: writing and directing an independent film about a woman who’s been lobotomized. Suddenly Tina’s boredom evaporates, her time instead taken up with tasks: scouting deserted buildings for locations, or combing pawn shops for props. But this idyll is disrupted when the bones of two men holding hands are found on the grounds of the commune. A media tug-of-war ensues between a local scientist and a Native American tribe claiming the men as ancestors. Trixie and Tina get trapped in the standoff, “a days-long pandemonium of waiting.”
Raymond highlights the parallels between the two couples—Cookie and Henry, Trixie and Tina—by unraveling their stories in alternating chapters. But each friendship has its own invisible fault lines and tensions. While Cookie basks in Henry’s energy, Tina feels resentful at being manipulated by her friend, even as she longs for Trixie’s approval. At the exact moment when Tina should be finding herself, she worries that she has been subsumed by the charismatic tidal wave that is Trixie. She “had taken over her eyes and hands, burrowed under her skin. She could feel Trixie’s taste working inside her, Trixie’s past playing out in her life. Trixie’s ambitions coursed through her veins.”
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 that 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.