Knute Berger On Life, The Universe, And Everything In Puget Sound
Reviewed by Bonnie Loshbaugh
Pugetopolis: A Mossback takes on growth addicts, weather wimps, and the myth of Seattle nice
by Knute Berger
284 pp., Sasquatch Books, 2009
Knute Berger, a.k.a. Skip, a.k.a. Mossback, a.k.a. opinionated curmudgeon, has been sharing his opinions with the Puget Sound region for many years, in print publications, on the radio, and online. Now, sixty-five of his columns and commentaries have been collected in Pugetopolis, a book appropriately published by Seattle-based Sasquatch Books.
The volume is subtitled "A Mossback takes on growth addicts, weather wimps, and the myth of Seattle nice." If you want the quick version, growth is poorly planned, the weather separates the true Northwesterner from those who should go back to California, and though Seattle "tips its hat to nice," it is a "passive-aggressive, often dysfunctional, conflict-averse town."
Little escapes Berger's critical eye. The essays are broadly divided into the categories of Seattle Myths and Truths; Civilization; Nature; People; Politics; and Absurdities and Contradictions, which allows him to provide his take on everything from Boy Scouts to cruise ships to Ralph Nader to draft dodging to human-wildlife interactions, with plenty in between. He covers the Pacific Northwest's favorite topics, from Boeing to Bigfoot, with numerous references to Bill Gates sprinkled throughout, but he also pushes deeper to address the social topics Seattleites like to talk about – gay marriage – and those topics people try not to talk about – race.
Despite the breadth of topics, certain themes are apparent. Born and raised in Seattle, with summers in the San Juan Islands, Berger is steeped in the history of the region, and returns again and again to the tension between successive generations colonizing the Pacific Northwest. While the established mossbacks "respect the land and think newcomer pretensions are better left where they came from," Berger sees Seattle being homogenized and "turning into the civic equivalent of a Starbucks Frappuccino" by pretentious newcomers.
The influx of California refugees drives another topic oft revisited, how to deal with growth? (Hint: not the way California has.) "Our mode of living," writes Berger, "seems destined to destroy what we love because we love it. That is the mossback dilemma, but there are ways to respond. One is to take pride in place."
If Berger has reservations about the human contribution to the growth of Pugetopolis, he is truly in love with the landscape, to which he gives his best descriptions. Writing about the Olympic Sculpture Park, recently opened in downtown Seattle, "nature is not to be denied, and it frequently upstages the art. Eagles dogfight with seagulls overhead, and the Olympics play peekaboo behind a kimono of clouds." Watching a meteor shower, "it looked as if invisible hands were striking matches against the slate-black butt of the heavens." Industry is less favored: cruise ships are "giant crap-spewing barges," and, discussing the madness of holiday shopping, he asks, "Remember when Christmas wasn't used as just another economic marker, a kind of rectal-temperature taking of the national well-being?"
If you don't mind the raw descriptive language Berger is apt to use (fecal imagery often accompanies those subjects of greatest ire), the strength of this volume may also be its flaw. As a collection of commentaries written by a local author for the audience of local media outlets, it unabashedly assumes local knowledge. Much of the people and politics sections may be lost to those not familiar with the Washington political scene. These sections address insular subjects –Tim Eyman; retiring city councilmen; and the dying gasps of the Seattle Monorail Project– without providing a wide context for the details likely to sail past a reader outside of Seattle.
For readers within the city, on the other hand, why shell out for a book of reprinted commentaries you may have already read in the paper during the last fifteen years? Berger offers nothing new in Pugetopolis, instead harshly pointing out the old things that have gone wrong, and the new things that aren't any better.
Somewhere in the middle is an audience who will relish the work of Knute Berger, and quote his rich turns of phrase to other denizens and enjoy being in the know. After all, "every region needs a well-informed, ridiculously well-read, common-sensical smart-ass to cry foul before the citizens do something awful," says Tim Egan in his introduction, "Columnist Laureate."
What prompted Berger into this role? He is critical of nearly everything, including the tendency of the city government towards "nanny" legislation. ("Berger must have been absent when they gave the lesson in the nice part," writes Egan.) Yet, he seems to be providing a parental perspective to the city as well: Quit slouching, Seattle. Eat your vegetables. Are you still dating that boy? Oh, Seattle, you could do so much better for yourself! The strongest underlying theme in Berger's work is a criticism born of a deep love for the region he has watched grow and develop for so many years.
Bonnie Loshbaugh is a graduate student at UW's School of Marine Affairs, with an interest in public communication.