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Three disparate lives collide in this love letter to a lost Northwest era

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Return with us now to 1975, when the promises of the turbulent 1960s had not been forgotten, when the natural delights of the Northwest hadn't been overrun by hordes of newcomers, when old-growth timber hadn't been decimated or logging communities turned to ghost towns.

Return with us now to a moment verging toward the end of an era, as recaptured in an entrancing debut novel set in the environs of the logging town of Forks on the Olympic Peninsula. Nina Shengold's "Clearcut" (Anchor Books, 340 pages, $13) is a powerful re-creation of the place, the time, the people, an affecting, surprising and sometimes even shocking tale that seems destined for frequent inclusion in future listings of cult favorite novels about the Northwest.

Shengold, an award-winning screenwriter and playwright who lives in upstate New York, has crafted an irresistible valentine to the time she spent in the Northwest after graduating from Wesleyan University. Her novel draws on her outdoor work on youth conservation corps crews in the Olympic National Forest, as well as her time spent as a tree planter in the Olympics, and it superbly re-creates what she describes as "the most magnificent landscape I've ever encountered."

Interestingly, "Clearcut" is set in the exact same locale as David Guterson's grim and elegiac "Our Lady of the Forest," but Shengold's drama takes an earlier time on the Olympic Peninsula when hope and possibility could still be found in that rain-sodden setting. At the center of "Clearcut" is the towering and charismatic figure of Earley Ritter, a 29-year-old refuge from hillbilly Georgia who has settled into the roughhewn life of a "shake rat," harvesting cedar for roofing from stumps in ravaged forests.

Ritter is a low man on the logging hierarchy, but a fierce independent who lives in a squatter bus in the woods and whose only possession of value is his trusty Husqvarna chainsaw. He sees himself as a loner ("I'm not good at people") despite his frequent trysts with town women; also as a loser destined to leave no mark on the lives of others.

But Ritter's life begins to change dramatically when he picks up a hitchhiker named Reed Alton, a serious young mandolin player with an East Coast pedigree who has left college in Berkeley in hopes of hooking up with a onetime girlfriend now planting trees in the Olympics. Ritter and Alton come upon Zan Koutros in the Cedar Bar Lounge, where her sexy acrobatics with a pool cue are causing some serious male meltdowns.

The sparks soon fly not only between Zan and Reed, but also between Zan and Earley, who has taken on the Berkeley dropout as his new partner in the woods. Thus begins a wise-cracking dance of friendship, jealousy, lust and romance among this unlikely trio, with Zan joining the two guys in the remote bus on weekends, leading up to one unforgettable night when all their raging passions are unleashed in a threesome on Earley's futon.

This is one of several shocking plot turns that Shengold orchestrates with considerable aplomb, as "Clearcut" marches toward its gut-punch climax. This idyll in the woods, with three needy yet hardy souls finding comfort and love in unexpected permutations, is altered forever by sudden violence.

Shengold dances perilously to the precipice of potboiler melodrama in the novel's intense close, but never succumbs, saved by her unforgettable characters, her understated prose and her acute eye for the Northwest landscape and ethos.

"Clearcut" resonates on the page and in the memory, with Earley Ritter destined for enshrinement in the hall of Northwest fiction heroes.

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