In Stray City, Johnson crafts a really startlingly effective debut. I’ll say from the outset that I haven’t seen a summary yet that doesn’t spoil far, far too much of the book, so be wary. I’ve seen summaries spoiling plot developments that happen over two-thirds of the way through the novel, which is just way out of bounds for me. I’ll give you only the tiniest set up. The story follows Andrea Morales, a waifish Midwestern girl, as she finds her place in the “lesbian mafia” of late 90s Portland; the bulk of the story set up you should have is that things start to get a little crazy when she finds herself in a strange sexual interlude with a guy. Johnson really captures a sense of time and place and she makes the queer side of Portland really come to life in this book. Andrea is a wonderful character and Johnson inhabits her first-person voice absolutely wonderfully. The characters really all come to life in surprising ways. The cast is large, but all of the characters, even the smallest ones, feel absolutely real. The book is sharply written and often very funny, but it also has a deep tang of loneliness to it. The prose, though, is so good that it keeps you turning pages. It isn’t exactly that you want to see what’s going to happen next, but more that you want to see the characters interact. The conversation scenes are marvelous and Johnson has a knack for really bringing characters out in organic ways. Ryan, the straight guy Andrea finds herself involved with, could very easily be a stock character, but he has real depth – he’s a fascinating contradiction of his own. But this is a book about a lot of issues surrounding identity and homelessness (in the spiritual sense, though sometimes also the literal) and the roles we play for ourselves and for others. It’s a really thrilling book to read. At one point, Johnson changes the style and tone of the novel completely in order to tell a significant portion of the story in a kind of modern epistolary format and it’s exactly the kind of gimmick that would ordinarily set my teeth on edge, but it’s totally organic here. The style change allows the novel to tell a section of the story much better than it otherwise would have been able to . . . and that’s kind of astonishing, just to see a style change that marked also be organic and smart. This is a lovely book in so many ways, breathtakingly perfect in a lot of ways. It’s a pure delight and a book you should pick up immediately. 4 stars.
tl;dr – startlingly wonderful debut novel is full of ideas about identity, spiritual isolation, the notion of home and more; the prose is sharp and you’ll love these complicated characters. 4 stars.