Author Jack Hart spent a quarter of a century at The Oregonian as an editor, served as tenured faculty and acting dean at the University of Oregon's journalism school, and has led writing workshops from hither to yon. With all of that experience under his belt, it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that "Skookum Summer," just out from University of Washington Press, is Hart's debut novel.
But it should be no surprise at all to learn that the protagonist of this book is a newspaper reporter.
Tom Dawson grew up in a small logging town on the Olympic Peninsula, then went on to college and moved to Southern California where he was building a successful reporting career - until he got caught cutting corners on a story he wrote for the Los Angeles Times.
He left his job in disgrace, and no other major dailies will touch him with a 10-foot pole. So Tom has come back to Bent Fir (a wacky name for a burg, but Hart must have figured that with real towns on the Peninsula called Forks and Humptulips, this one wasn't entirely beyond the pale).
Tom ends up working at the same place where he'd interned as a high school freshman - the Big Skookum Echo is the over-sized name for the local weekly. Skookum is Chinook jargon for "really good" or "durable," but coming back to work in this backwater has been a real comedown - until a well-known local logger gets murdered, and suddenly Tom has the story he needs to flex his investigative reporting muscles.
The problem is, the victim was the father-in-law of Tom's editor, and the suspect - still at large - could be one of any number of locals Tom has known since he was a child.
This is a big, brawny, ambitious yarn set on the Olympic Peninsula in 1981, with the logging industry in decline and meth labs on the rise. The author also weaves in mentions of the Trident submarine base, Washington Mutual's lending practices, pollution in Puget Sound and the non-native mountain goat controversy in Olympic National Park to create a milieu that seems fully authentic.
Supporting characters are thoughtfully developed, too, but the lead characters are less believable. At 29, Tom comes across as a tad young to be the hard-drinking, chain-smoking newshound Hart has conceived. And Tom's love interest, a lieutenant at the naval air station, is pertly ambitious in a one-note kind of way.
The couple copulates with some frequency - a distraction that some readers may enjoy and others may find tedious. I'm in the latter camp, and I'd advise that cutting out some of those scenes could improve the pacing of the 300 pages, which feel a mite overlong.
While "Skookum Summer" doesn't quite live up to its name, it does provide a good sense of late 20th century flux in the Pacific Northwest - aptly describing the waning forestry industry and hinting at other concerns that were looming on the horizon.
Author Jack Hart shares his new book, "Skookum Summer" at 4 p.m. June 14 at Village Books, 1200 11th St.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com