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Originally published Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'Rain Dragon': searching for greener pastures (organic version)

Portland author Jon Raymond's new novel "Rain Dragon" features a young L.A. couple who, searching for meaning, move to an organic farm in the Oregon Cascades. Raymond reads Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Jon Raymond

The author of "Rain Dragon" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'Rain Dragon'

by Jon Raymond

Bloomsbury, 260 pp., $16

Not quite a satire and not quite a pastoral idyll, Jon Raymond's new novel, "Rain Dragon," focuses on a possible Pacific Northwest utopia, its lurking discontents — and its surprisingly vigorous business potential.

Rain Dragon is an organic farm in the Cascades foothills outside Portland whose products, primarily yogurt and honey, are distributed up and down the West Coast. It's not just a commercial venture but a communal experiment, and that's what has drawn narrator Damon Duncan and his girlfriend of six years, Amy, to flee their careers in Los Angeles (an ad-firm job for him, a voice-acting career for her) and reinvent themselves along rural lines.

Portland writer Raymond's previous book, "Livability," was a story collection that often touched on similar tenuous attempts at self-

reinvention by floundering souls. There are also parallels with Raymond's screenplay for Kelly Reichardt's fine film, "Meek's Cutoff," a low-key Western about would-be immigrants getting out of their depth on the Oregon Trail. "Rain Dragon" doesn't have the purity of tone and focus of "Meek's Cutoff." But in its 21st-century way, it covers the same territory with its story of a drastic move that doesn't pan out as expected.

Damon's chief challenge is Amy, who's the restless partner in this couple. She's always on the lookout for greener pastures, while Damon, left to his own devices, would be content to graze in the same old field. Amy's "greener pastures" include living arrangements that from time to time exclude Damon.

"We split up to some degree every nine months or so, with many smaller, less serious rifts in between," Damon explains. "It had gotten to the point where the break-up was just one peculiar phase of our intimacy, a staging ground for whatever the next level of commitment was going to be."

Their move to Rain Dragon is their latest attempt to salvage their relationship — but it doesn't work for long. Damon, while pleased that Amy quickly finds her niche at the farm (in beekeeping), finds himself entirely lacking the talents necessary to flourish in this setting. He can handle that, for Amy's sake. But when Rain Dragon founder Peter Hawk becomes aware of Damon's ad-agency background and has him successfully take over Rain Dragon's marketing campaign, Amy's discontent — coincidentally? — surfaces again, and she announces she's taking another break from Damon.

Raymond's eye for the passive-aggressive dynamic between these two couldn't be better drawn, and his gift for evoking the natural detail of their surroundings — a hummingbird, in stationary flight, is "a tiny green brooch pinned to the world" — is often just as good.

But "Rain Dragon" flirts with other subject matter, too, from an angle that's oddly difficult to read. For Peter Hawk, Rain Dragon isn't just a health-food company but a philosophy: "We're entering a moment," he declares, "when our whole business culture might change how it thinks in a big way. For the better."

Building from this point, it seems only logical to Hawk to expand Rain Dragon into a consulting firm while still keeping the yogurt and honey in steady production. When he makes a bid for a contract to advise a timber company on how to improve its efficiency and its employee satisfaction, Damon serves as his right-hand man. It's here that the novel loses its way. At moments it seems set to lampoon how businesses inevitably calcify and/or move toward a betrayal of their own founding principles. At other moments, it seems puzzlingly sincere about the benefits of touchy-feely corporate seminars.

That doesn't take away from everything the book gets right about Damon and Amy. But it does make for an unwieldy overall package.

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