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Originally published Sunday, May 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"The Moss Gatherers": Edgy characters know their turf

Set in the big cities and small towns, the centerless suburbs and anti-bucolic ruralities of Oregon and Washington, the stories collected...

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Moss Gatherers"
by Matt Briggs
String Town Press, 200 pp., $14

Set in the big cities and small towns, the centerless suburbs and anti-bucolic ruralities of Oregon and Washington, the stories collected in Matt Briggs' "The Moss Gatherers" are as authentically Northwestern as fiction can get. Dodging the picturesque, postcard version of our region, the Northwest Briggs brings to his readers is at once stark and lush.

From the venomous family secrets exposed in "Dry Farming," to the backwaters of memory slowly surging through "Snoqualmie," Seattle author Briggs gets to the emotional core of his characters by showing us how in tune they are with the landscapes actually surrounding them, rather than those we idealize.

It's not just the native-born who fall under the region's grand-yet-grimy spell, as Melanie, French heroine of the collection's title piece, learns. Searching for her wandering brother's killer, she refuses to accept the assessment of an Astoria, Ore., sheriff who blames nebulous itinerant "moss gatherers" for the death.

Coming up

Matt Briggs

The author of "The Moss Gatherers" will read at 5 p.m. Thursday at the University Book Store's Bothell branch, 18325 Campus Way N.E., Suite 102, Bothell (425-352-3344).

But as she plunges deeper and deeper into her investigation, the mysteries Melanie confronts become more and more elusive. Following the faint trail from a scenic viewpoint to a dark, damp forest clearing, its floor a mix of rotting branches, stuffed animals covered in mildew, and bloodstained blue jeans, she senses the futility of pursuing her quest "... in a place like this where so many things were already lost."

"Mirror Dress," the upbeat story of a woman overcoming the multiple onuses of a glamorous mother, a talented brother and a prematurely dead dad, captures the full-speed-ahead rhythms of Seattle's cultural sophistication, while "Contagion" gives readers a glimpse of the creepiness lurking in the pocket parks of its ostensibly mundane residential neighborhoods.

In "Red Breast" (winner of the Nelson Bentley Prize in Fiction) a suicidal bird, a pedophile and the unattractive son of a genuinely good Christian woman conspire to deprive her of her sleep. Pragmatic, clueless-yet-likable Lori Thorton's insomnia is underscored by the physical trappings of the comfortable middle-class lifestyle she takes for granted.

The high point of "Moss Gatherers" is "Snoqualmie," a story that's haunting in every sense of the word. Encounters with Miss Eaves, an eccentric elderly apartment manager who forages for fiddleheads and mushrooms while reminiscing about jazz great Lester Young, lead orphaned high-school grad Bret to realize that there's more going on around him than he can see. His tiny town, encircled by rings of gentrifying construction, is filled with the ineffable, "... under the tangles of blackberries, or hiding in the heavy boughs of the cedar trees ... "

Watching Snoqualmie gradually lose its population — sometimes to Greater Seattle's more affluent municipalities, sometimes to run of the mill tragedies — Bret stays on, monitoring the corresponding flow of personal relics through the local antique store: "... lettermen's jackets ... musty annuals dating all the way back to the '40s ... Pepto-Bismol-pink single-piece grade-school desks ... all this junk gathering a layer of mold under the old barn roof before it passed on to the county dump."

Simultaneously evoking absence, eeriness, beauty and regret, Briggs proves here that he truly deserved the 2003 Stranger Genius Award and demonstrates the high likelihood of receiving even bigger prizes.

Good though "Moss Gatherers" is, it's not quite perfect. "Reverse Order," the story of a man who believes he has been abducted by aliens, ends with all traces of the inexplicable vanishing as facilely and gratuitously as they've appeared.

And the entire book suffers from poor copy editing. Orchards that refuse to "bare" fruit, and musings on what a woman "could have drank" are only minor annoyances, but every single distraction from Briggs' brilliance is one distraction too many.

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