16 February 2017

[OR_liff] Bill Hall Nails The Tao of Tom McCall With McCallandia

The Wife™ has informed me that seeing local things with the grammatic form -landia appended has become tiresome. I'm beginning to agree. If you see anythinglandia in Portland or the environs these days, it's long since lost its punch.

The upside to this is that when something is given the rubric and deserves it, it wears it so very well. I have just met with such a thing.

Bill Hall is a man of much ilk who has been involved in Oregon politics for a while; he is currently a county commissioner in Lincoln County, down on the coast. As a younger fellow, he volunteered to help elect Oregon's then-quondam governor, Tom McCall, to a hoped-for third non-consecutive term. Old Moe Mentum had swung the other way by then, and it was not to be, but clearly it left the seed of a story that eventually demanded to be told.

Oregon politics and politicos are strange things. At once parochial and world-aware, we tend to have a laser-like focus on the local that tends to obscure the fact that, in the back of our minds, we have a solid idea of how it connects to the world around us. I fancy they are a breed unto themselves. From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, that breed of human was crystallized into a 6' 5" man from Massachusetts by way of central Oregon who taught us … and is still, by his legacy, teaching us … how to Oregon better than many natives. McCall is a legend in Oregon politics for good, solid reasons, leaving us a legacy of logical, sensible land-use planning and a way of cherishing the environment and our natural treasures that acknowledges that if Oregon's special because of them, Oregon will no longer be special if she sells them out as wealth and plunder.

But he was also a man of seeming contradictions, because as progressive as he was in many important ways, in other ways, he was your standard-issue 1970s Republican. Author Hall has taken the measure of the man, all in all, and given us a romp of a utopian novel in McCallandia, published by Matt Love's Nestucca Spit Press. The book imagines what would have happened if, instead of elevating Gerald Ford to the vice-presidency on Agnew's resignation in 1973, Nixon instead chose The Man From Oregon as an unexpected safe chair-warmer. Of course, Watergate happened after that. And after that … President McCall. And The Oregon Story goes national.

This is, as the tagline in the upper right corner of book has it, a utopian novel, and those who would say that what happened in the book couldn't possibly happen in reality would be well-advised to look up that word and understand what it means. Because a book in which the Bottle Bill and the Beach Bill went national, the President temporarily heads the EPA, Vortex II happens on the National Mall, and Barry Commoner becomes vice president couldn't possibly happen in reality. Being a utopian alternative history, though, allows you to kick out all the stops.

Where this book really clicked for me, though, whas the way Hall made everything work. By his authorial pen, McCall achieves full measure as an Oregonized sort of Lyndon Johnson, who had one foot in tradition and one foot in daring to do the right thing against any and all odds. All the positivity and even the hope for change that McCall represented to many of us was captured utterly. The novel is saturated in all the Oregon you could ever want to read about; no less than James Cloutier contributed a Hugh Wetshoe cartoon as one of the opening gambits.

Hall's McCall fairly strides though the novel, which is set up as a series of episodes interspersed with narratives from other supporting characters and 'what might have been' media pieces. The life of President McCall doesn't deviate from the actual history of the times; "Squeaky" Fromme makes an attempt on his life in Sacramento in 1975, Vic Atiyeh still triumphs over Robert Straub to become Oregon's last GOP governor; McCall still succumbs to cancer in January of 1983. What also impresses is the way Hall weaves the facts of what actually happened with the idea of a McCall presidency and makes it all seem as though, if McCall had actually gotten into the White House, this all might actually have happened.

And any Oregon political novel that has Ken Kesey as a character? That name-checks Callenbach's Ecotopia? Whose roll-call of Oregon political names rings down the Capitol corridors like animating spirits? Whose second chapter is a notional Rolling Stone piece that channels Hunter S. Thompson? How could I not say yes to that?

The book is a wonder and a romp  and a manic bit of fun and as Oregon as it gets and a decided anti-depressant to the current times we're in, and if anyone ever wonders why McCall was revered by Oregonians Of A Certain Age and why he should be even now, you'll find the answers here.

I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone interested in Oregon get a copy of this book. It may well turn out to be one of the best-remembered and cogent books on the Oregon scene ever written.

It certainly nailed the McCall I remember.

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