A review of "Lake City," a new novel by Seattle author Thomas Kohnstamm. It tells the tale of 27-year-old Lane Bueche, who crash-lands at his mother’s house off Lake City Way after his marriage to a New York heiress hits some snags.

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Book review

It’s not often that you encounter a fictional character who could have served you cold cuts at your neighborhood Fred Meyer.

But if you live near Lake City, as I do, Thomas Kohnstamm’s debut novel tells a tale so local (starting with a dust-jacket reproduction of the neon signage of Lake City Power Sports) that you may want to look over your shoulder the next time you go grocery shopping to see if the book’s ne’er-do-well narrator is lurking there.

“Lake City” is the story of 27-year-old Lane Bueche, who crash-lands at his mother’s house off Lake City Way at the tail end of 2001, after his marriage to a New York heiress hits some snags. Lane has dreams of academic glory (his postgraduate studies at Columbia University are being funded by his wife), so winding up in his old boyhood bedroom is a mortifying setback.

“This is not the Seattle of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon,” Lane tells us. “It’s nowhere … Moss. Lawns matted with decomposing pine needles. Mud-licked streets without sidewalks.”

Refusing to take a shred of responsibility for his marital troubles or dismal mental state, Lane turns to booze “to play Whac-a-Mole with his every emotion while watching an endless stream of Christmas TV specials and post-9/11 coverage.” Desperate for cash, he returns to his old college job behind the deli counter at Fred Meyer, while seeking out old high-school friends he knows will steer him back into trouble. (Among his other woes, “North Seattle’s Sisyphus of sliced sandwich meats” is dealing with a three-year suspended sentence, following a drug deal gone wrong that resulted in “a lifetime disqualification from federal student aid.”)

In short, Lane needs access to wife Mia’s trust fund if he’s going to attain the scholarly heights he aspires to. And, hey, it would be nice to have access to Mia’s Gramercy Park apartment, too.

Not that he’s a freeloader. He sincerely believes he has been “helping Mia become her best self as much as she’s been helping him.” Now if only he could reach her on the phone …

It’s easy to see that Lane’s attempts to redeem himself will not go as planned. Less predictable are the complications Kohnstamm throws his way, which turn “Lake City” into a caustic satire on class privilege and deprivation.

Lane’s chief complication is a woman of “aggressive intensity” whom he meets at a party. Her name is Nina, and she and her lesbian lover want Lane to snoop on the birth mother of their foster child, who suddenly wants her kid back.

Inez, according to Nina, is a former meth-head living in University Trailer Park. Nina is fearful that little Jordan will become “a pawn in some scheme by the druggie loser who never did anything more for him than get barebacked in a mobile home.” And she’s willing to pay Lane $3,000 to manipulate Inez into falling off the wagon so she fails her next drug test and loses custody of her son.

Lane, being the spineless sponge he is, says yes. But once he’s entangled in Inez’s life, he starts to feel more empathy for her than he should if the scheme is going to work.

Along with steeping you in the sodden, bone-chilling back streets of Lake City, Kohnstamm serves up historical background on the neighborhood and even tosses in a capsule corporate history of Fred Meyer for good measure. Lane may see New York as “the one place he ever felt like he was approaching his true self,” but Lake City seems to seep from his pores.

Kohnstamm skewers Lane’s weak-willed rascality like someone who’s been there, which may be the case. His first book, about being a Lonely Planet guidebook writer, was titled “Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism.”

The novel loses a little of its edge in its later stretches, perhaps because even Lane can’t remain as venal and duplicitous as he’d like to be in his dealings with Nina and Inez. But the portrait Kohnstamm offers of a Seattle backwater trailing in the wake of the Emerald City’s rising glamour is indelible.


“Lake City” by Thomas Kohnstamm, Counterpoint, 304 pp., $16.95

Thomas Kohnstamm will appear in conversation with novelist Jonathan Evison at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free; thirdplacebooks.com, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; elliottbaybook.com.