Blue Moon over Thurman Street by Ursula K. Le Guin and Roger Dorband (1993)
Published in 1993, Blue Moon over Thurman Street consists of 94 black and white photographs taken by Mr. Roger Dorband and of interlineated text contributed by Ms. Ursula K. Le Guin. Its subject is a single Portland, Oregon, street. “To walk a street,” Ms. Le Guin writes in her introduction, “is to be told a story. Through the years that I have lived in Portland, as I walked up and down my street, Thurman Street, it kept telling me a story.” What the co-authors sought to convey, Ms. Le Guin continues, “was the story (the street) was telling, all that vigor and variety of aspect and season, of motion and intention, of building and decaying, of business and loitering, the lonesomeness and sociability, the life of the street.”
I have been poring over this book since not long after its publication, bringing the perspective of a reader, writer, and avid student of crime fiction. From that perspective, Blue Moon over Thurman Street is, I submit, the better part of a crime novel, one that, but for the lack of a through-plot, would rank among the greats.
Whether a crime novel is a great crime novel depends on the skill with which its author creates atmosphere, delineates characters, and unscrolls a plot. These criteria consciously guide the critic and unconsciously guide the general reader in assessing a crime novel’s worth. Especially in the photographs, Blue Moon over Thurman Street, provides detailed and absorbing atmospherics. The street itself serves as a complex and intriguing protagonist. Secondary characters are numerous, varied, and interesting in themselves. As to plot, the street may tell a story but a story is not a plot. Add a plot and, given the meaty atmosphere and rich characterization, the shade of even persnickety old Raymond Chandler would be obliged to tip his hat.
Thurman is one of the principle thoroughfares running east-west through Portland’s Northwest neighborhood. Thurman finds its footing against the railroad tracks at Northwest 14th Street near the Willamette River, runs straight west for fifteen blocks to Northwest 29th, then meanders another mile or so, through an increasingly narrow and tree-shrouded corridor, until reaching its termination at the edge of the city’s brooding Forest Park. The ground the street traverses slopes up gently between 14th and 29th, and, after crossing a deep chasm, climbs more steeply thereafter. A central commercial district separates the industrial blocks nearer the river from the residential blocks nearer the park.
The book is an odd mix of components. The photographs are among those that Mr. Dormand took along Thurman Street, in all seasons, between 1985 and 1989. A comprehensive appendix of notes to the photographs ends the book. Mr. Dormand characterizes these as “a matrix of time, location, and background for readers wanting additional information.”
The text Ms. Le Guin contributes (in addition to some of the notes) is of three sorts. Predominating are poems in which Ms. Le Guin is “reacting directly to the images and finding links and resonances with other images.” Also included are quotations from people who were photographed or whose conversations overheard on the street, “all part of the story of the street,” gathered, it seems, at random. Finally, Ms. Le Guin provided short translations from the Bhagavid Gita by which she means to present a “voice that was not mine nor my neighbors’, a voice speaking from beyond this-time-now, this-place-here; words of the eternal story, to bring it all together.”
With minor exceptions, Mr. Dormand “tried to present (Thurman Street) as it appears to the pedestrian, always from street level, from the outside looking in….” He “photographed only with available light and used a lens range that mimics the way the eye sees, never telescopically or panoramically.” These self-imposed constraints, together with straightforward composition and cropping and a mid-tone palette, give the photographs a documentary look.
The photographs are ordered, more or less, to show what a pedestrian, walking from Northwest 14th Street to Forest Park, would see along the way. It was no doubt challenging to decide which, from among probably thousands of images, to include in the book. It would have been easy enough, through these choices, for a single author to spin the street, to present it as embracing or alienating, to glamorize it or run it down. The collaborators’ differing sensibilities worked against such an outcome.
“…(W)e see the same street differently,” writes Ms. Le Guin. “That’s why this is a true collaboration. Roger’s Thurman Street is bluer and darker and bleaker than mine; it has more cars and more power lines. My street has more kids, cats, dogs, and housewives than his.” The differing sensibilities reflected in the photographs are part of what make the street complex and interesting and hence a notable character.
And yet, in the way of great crime novels, the book from the outset makes the reader feel edgy, on guard, ill at ease. Partly this is through misdirection. Because of the documentary look of the photographs the reader is at first beguiled into seeing the book as social narrative—the story of a street—an objective chronicle of people living in a particular time and place. Upon closer scrutiny, however, one begins to notice the number of images that reveal a man-made environment crossed by the noirish shadows of late afternoon, or disintegrating under an onslaught of harsh weather and encroaching vegetation. The photos show rain and fog and here and there among everyday faces a sidelong glance which suggests nothing so much as a mugger sizing up an oblivious victim.
What may be implicit in the photographs is made explicit in the text. Mr. Dormand encounters an old man collecting recyclable cardboard who says that he wouldn’t live on Thurman Street. “Too much trash.” Mr. Dormand mistakes what the old man means by trash. It isn’t litter he’s talking about, but trash of the human sort. “You can get killed down here,” the old man declares.
Rumors suggest that homeless men Mr. Dormand photographed early on may be dead. Hard to say. They simply disappeared. In one photograph Ms. Le Guin sees the shadow of a ghost, that of Homer Balch, “the first man to be hanged (legally) in Portland.” The parentheses, included in the original text, suggest that Mr. Balch had his predecessors. Ms. Le Guin quotes at length the owner of a local bookstore robbed at knife point by a cursing drug addict. Security men rush out of industrial doorways challenging Mr. Dormand and his camera. The convenience store where, in the 60s, Ms. Le Guin’s children bought candy and MAD magazine, now posts a sign: “Only Two Children at One Time in Store.”
And finally, in text, Ms. Le Guin provides those quotations from the Gita, otherworldly and sounding a fatalistic note that the reader senses in every page. “Before its birth all being is unseen, after its death, unseen again. All being is seen between two unseens. Therefore why grieve?” A cosmic handclap, in short, and the whole business disappears, and along Thurman Street—the image recurs multiple times in the poems—“souls take their own ways sideways.”
A few years ago I was planning a crime novel that became Better Off Dead, set partly in sagebrush and scrub country east of the Cascade Mountains and partly in Portland. In Portland, the story required three crime scene locations. Two of the three I knew from the outset, one a rundown house in the Lair Hill neighborhood south of downtown, the other an old-money mansion high up the slope in the city’s airy West Hills. The third, after considerable casting about, I finally located by way of Ms. Le Guin and Mr. Dormand’s engrossing book—out Thurman Street where the pavement ends in Forest Park.