Forest Blood is set in Lewis Falls, a fictional small company town in southwestern Oregon and lifelong home to John "Jack" Gilliam, former company logger. In the midst of environmental protests—brought on by the company's clear-cutting, accelerated to pay off debts incurred by the corporate raiders who bought the outfit in a leveraged buyout—Jack's chainsaw strikes a ceramic spike while he's felling a tree and he finds himself crippled for life. Forest Blood
by Jeff Golden (Wellstone Press, $15) Jack awakens to find himself not only paralyzed from the waist down but at the center of a national political and media feeding frenzy. The vultures—industrialists, environmentalists, politicians, and reporters—are biting off chunks of his broken life and fighting each other for the pieces. Disgusted, Jack decides to tell his own complex and compelling story in the form of a first-person narrative. It's an intriguing setup, fertile ground for a cinematic-style eco-thriller or whodunnit. Such a beginning could also serve for a thinly disguised polemic on behalf of either conservative or liberal ideology. Jeff Golden's story turns out to be none of these things, and his readers are richer for it. Like a meal that is said to be both "tasty and healthful," the notion of a novel that's both relevant and readable seems unlikely, but Golden pulls it off by remaining true to his narrator and main character. Jack, the hapless timber faller, suffers from doubts and conflicting views while refusing to accept easy answers. His search for the causes of his and his town's predicament leads him to find hypocrisy and prevarication everywhere he looks, even in himself. In the process we're given a portrait of a tragedy that's at times lovingly and accurately done and at other times slips into caricature. Golden's descriptions of small-town rural life and work in the woods are rich in detail and true to life. The "forest blood" of the title, we learn, isn't just Jack's wound but also the pride and skill of blue-collar life in the Pacific Northwest. Through Jack's eyes we also see the larger world, the outsiders engaged in political, cultural, and economic struggle. Some of Golden's caricatures are viciously funny, as when Bryant Gumbel closes his two-minute Today Show hospital-room interview with "John Gilliam in Grants Pass, Oregon, victim of sabotage in the ancient forest—good luck to you. Heal fast," and then promises ". . . something on a much lighter note." Still, these cameo appearances by real public figures—Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, NPR's Bob Edwards among them—often seem more like useful foils for the author than genuinely perceived interlopers in the main character's life. Jeff Golden has done a journeyman's job here. Despite a few false starts and somewhat awkward spots, he's produced a solid novel—not an immortal one, but something rare and laudable, an honest work driven by social concerns that's downright entertaining.