A spy thriller set in 1980s America and the Scottish Highlands
Talking Location with author Chuck Caruso – Portland, Oregon
22nd July 2017
TalkingLocationWith…. author Chuck Caruso, a Crime Writer’s Guide to Portland, Oregon.
This month, London-based independent publisher Cloud Lodge Books publishes my debut crime novel, The Lawn Job, a noir thriller set in contemporary Portland, Oregon. This smaller and weirder West Coast cousin to San Francisco and Seattle has attracted a bit of (international) attention in recent years, in part thanks to Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s sketch comedy show Portlandia. The program takes certain liberties and exaggerates the city’s quirks to broaden its humor, but from a certain perspective the show can practically be seen as a documentary about life in this vibrant, artistic city.
Yes, locals really do worry about eating sustainable, organic food and want to know that they are eating meat from animals that had happy lives. And, as the joke goes, Portland is where recent college graduates go to retire. The dream of the 90s is still alive there. Not the grunge 90s but the 1890s, when Portland was still the commercial capitol of the Pacific Northwest, before engineers figured out how to dredge out the Puget Sound and make Seattle a more viable seaport.
These days, Portland swarms with over-educated and underpaid young people who work barista and bartending jobs to support their creative lives. Many have so much student-loan debt that they have to walk, bicycle, or bus everywhere to afford rent. The denizens sport tattoos and piercings, odd facial hair, and retro hairstyles in elaborate colors. They all wear vintage, thrift store clothes and clunky glasses. Even the girls.
Everyone is polite. Almost painfully so.
But, all that said, Portland also has a dark side. That more sinister underbelly might still be as weird as the sunny side (with a bird on it), but that other side of the city gives rise to sui generis personalities like Chuck Palahniuk and explains why this place is also home to smart, funny crime writers like Chelsea Cain, Johnny Shaw, and Bill Cameron.
I had the advantage of living in the city while writing The Lawn Job. I got to plumb these depths. Hopefully my novel captures that seedier side of the city with humanity and humor. If you’re visiting Portland and want to experience some of my influences, you’ll want to make sure you visit a few of the following highlights.
Downtown Portland teams with excellent independent hotels such as The Lucia and my personal favorite, the dog-friendly Kimpton Hotel Monaco, but The Heathman has long been one of the most memorable and unique of Portland accommodations. Featured in the erotic 50 Shades of Gray (as well as in my own rather sexy novel), visitors to Portland will want to swing by The Heathman, at least to see the doormen in full regalia and to sip a cocktail in its lovely, street-level bar.
Portland has no shortage of wonderful places to have a drink. Just around the corner from The Heathman hotel, Picnic House has a wide selection of delicious libations. A few blocks farther East, you won’t want to miss the experience of being served a flaming Spanish coffee at Huber’s Café, one of historic downtown Portland’s oldest bars.
The small, swank cocktail lounge, Vault Martini is just the sort of place that my novel’s femme fatale Mrs. Pasarelli would have selected for drinks, and it’s located only a couple blocks from world-renowned Powell’s Books (which you know you’ll be visiting anyway), so you can slake your thirst between hours-long sessions browsing the shelves of the West Coast’s best book store.
Also a short walk from Powell’s, Fat Head’s Brewery offers a wonderful taste of Portland’s thriving brewpub scene. You literally can’t walk more than a few blocks in this city without finding a taproom with a seemingly endless selection of local brews. Those venturing across the Willamette River to the more working class East side of the city would do well to tip a few pints at one of the several Lucky Lab locations or at Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB).
Beer drinkers beware. You will find yourselves falling in love with this city and adjusting your travel plans for a longer stay. The local chain McMenamins has locations all over the region and not only offers their own selection of very good beers and consistently good American foods, but the family performs the public service of saving local landmarks from the wrecking ball by converting them to quirky and cozy restaurants. I’m especially partial to their Ruby Ale.
Although the old-fashioned pizza chain upon which I based Big Gino’s Family Pizzeria in my novel has long since been closed, Portland still has plenty of wonderful options for pizza. The “Haunted Taproom” of aptly named Old Town Pizza, located in old town (where else?), definitely takes you back to a bygone era. My own favorite local chain is Pizzicato, which you can find all over the city. If you want to see the physical restaurant that inspired the pizzeria in the early chapters of The Lawn Job, you’ll have to venture down SE McLoughlin to the Pietro’s Pizza on Main St in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, Oregon. You can’t miss the red pin-striped building.
Dick’s Kitchen is another great Portland restaurant for burgers, fries and salads with a Portland twist. Their walls feature prominent photographs of famous Richards, from Richard Nixon to Dick Van Dyke. The restaurant has two locations, one on the more urban NW 21st and another on SE Belmont in the quirky Sunnyside neighborhood, where my novel’s other femme fatale, the transgender stripper Juana lives in a cute little bungalow. While you’re enjoying the “The Zizou” burger and the yam “not-fries,” you can imagine Juana coyly telling you, “I just love Dick’s, don’t you?”
Speaking of strippers, your tour of the Portland I write about in The Lawn Job wouldn’t be complete without a visit to an exotic dance joint. The city has more strip clubs per capita than any other city in the United States. Oregon’s liberal laws regarding free expression also allow alcohol service and full nudity by the dancers. Historically minded visitors can find some titillation downtown at Mary’s Club on Broadway just a short walk north from more upscale sites. Those with a desire to see more of what Portland has to offer in nudie bars will want to visit east side strip clubs like Union Jack’s (more the type of place where Juana would dance) or the Safari Showroom, the latter of which is conveniently located next to HUB, in case you’ve had a few pints and fancy a lap dance before returning to your hotel.
Thanks to Chuck for an in-depth exploration of Portland, Oregon. You can follow him on Twitter and via his website. You can also buy his novel through TripFiction
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Mary’s Club is still going? I hope the “dancers” are younger than the club is! Will be staying at the Benson soon and I’ll check.