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Urban diversion

Issues, not people, drive Ailanthus Park


The star of Missoula author Marina Snow’s new novel, Ailanthus Park, is not so much the novel’s protagonist, as it is the historic neighborhood in Sacramento the protagonist has moved to in the novel’s opening.

Virtually from the moment Claire settles into the renovated Victorian home she inherited from her aunt, she gets caught up in the tensions between rivaling factions in her neighborhood: those hoping to restore and develop the area, those seeking to build low rent housing for the lower-income bracket, and city developers who want to create a park in the middle of the neighborhood.

At the core of Snow’s novel is the subject of urban renewal—and all the bureaucratic nightmares and competing agendas that go with that process. But from a storytelling viewpoint, Snow challenges traditional expectations readers tend to have for a work of fiction: Who’s the protagonist? What are the desires and fears that compel him or her toward something dreadful, euphoric, etc.? Those expectations are, roughly, what Milan Kundera once called the “enigma of the self” and the “fundamental questions on which the novel, as novel, is based.”  While urban renewal is a compelling and certainly timely issue (especially in ever-growing communities, like Missoula), it tends to overshadow other elements, particularly that of character, prompting the question of whether or not the novel is really the right form to highlight urban planning issues.

This is not to say Snow’s novel is devoid of the human element. It’s not. It’s the summer of 1983 (Cher fans will enjoy the scene where characters talk about the controversial “nuke flick,” Silkwood) and Claire not only moves into the house her late aunt left to her, but she also plans to take over Aunt Lydia’s bookstore in downtown Sacramento. Aunt Lydia died in a car accident and, perhaps even more devastating, Claire’s husband was killed in the same crash. Having lost both her beloved husband and her favorite aunt, Claire moves to Sacramento to rebuild her life.

What she finds when she gets there is a neighborhood populated with pimps and hookers, a handful of old Victorian “rehabbed” homes, whose owners, like Claire herself, are dedicated to restoring the neighborhood and a neighborhood council controlled by a group of Mexican immigrants who wouldn’t mind seeing the Victorian homes torn down in favor of low-rent housing. Primarily, it’s this group that accuse the “rehabbers” of gentrification, of effectively wanting to push out the needy. Amid these vying factions is a local dairy whose noisy trucks disrupt everyone. There’s also the Urban Redevelopment Agency, the city organization dedicated to “fixing up” the community by building a park in the middle of the neighborhood. This measure is hotly debated between the city official, Elmer Frye, and the city’s Parks Superintendent, Hank Forrester. We know whose side we’re supposed to be on simply by Snow’s character descriptions. “[Elmer] had a paunch that jiggled when he moved, and he carried a clipboard with a pen dangling by a chain.” Meanwhile, “[Hank] was ruggedly good-looking and seemed friendly and personable...” Hank, who will soon become Claire’s love interest, maintains that such a park will attract ne’er-do-wells: “Use your head, Frye. You know you’re too close to the Mission and the Salvation Army soup kitchens to put in a park here. Gentrification and hobos don’t mix. You’re asking for trouble big-time.”

It’s in these discussions, where Snow highlights the complex issues of urban redevelopment, that the novel is at its best. While Claire is certainly on the side of “the gentry,” and though Elmer Frye is beset with that belly and self-important clipboard, Snow manages to convey most sides without ever really criminalizing any one point of view. But even at its best, the novel lacks a certain intensity. As timely and important as these issues are, chapters detailing neighborhood council meetings are, well, a little dull.

You’d think the emotional core of the novel would be the process by which Claire moves on with her life after such tragic deaths and, indeed, this is a large part of the novel. However, it’s a process that happens so seamlessly as to be both a little unbelievable and a touch vapid. Claire makes new friends easily, moves forward with the bookstore easily, meets and falls for Hank easily and Hank falls easily for her—at exactly the same moment, no less, and with an intensity that is exactly equal to hers for him. All their friends are happy for Hank and Claire. Certainly, all this seamlessness was a deliberate choice. The movement in this novel doesn’t come from the nuances in the life of the main character, but from the debates within her community.

By virtually exchanging the notion of the character-driven novel (a notion that has dominated modern literature since, perhaps, Cervantes) with one that promotes community before self, Snow has arguably made a courageous decision. It’s a decision, though, that ultimately undermines. In Ailanthus Park character gets second billing to neighborhood politics, and the result is a diluted novel.

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