Marking the passage of our individual journeys around the sun is a lovely and meaningful tradition. With cake, presents, and flattering candlelight, we celebrate the passage of one more year and use fire to call for blessings for the next one to come. We surround ourselves with the people we love the most, or at least with the people who will give us the best presents. Milestone birthdays are particularly noteworthy, as we pause at the threshold of a new decade to reflect on how our perspectives change with age, how our life experiences reward and challenge us, and decide exactly what kind of stripper we want to show up at our 40th birthday party.
40th birthday party strippers come in every permutation you can imagine, but one of the most memorable ones I’ve ever seen was a large, leather-wearing, BDSM-themed dude named Larry who was hired as a surprise for a notoriously shy friend’s 40th. Larry was hilarious, expertly balancing the tightrope between birthday spankings and….um, birthday spankings. He put on a great show for all the party attendees, properly and expertly traumatizing the birthday boy so much that he swore he would celebrate his next milestone birthday in a cave by himself where nobody could applaud while a professional wearing nothing but a harness went after him with a cat-o’-nine-tails. FUN PARTY.
Fast forward. It’s been a couple of years since Larry dominated the birthday boy. A bunch of us, many of whom had been in attendance at a certain 40th birthday party, decide to take a field trip to a particular restaurant way out in the country because we’d heard that they had a great fried chicken buffet followed by an outstanding floor show that featured an Elvis impersonator. By the time the evening in question rolled around, word had spread and we had multiple cars caravaning out to a tiny town on the lake. Everyone had individual motivations for making the trek and we were evenly divided between Team Chicken and Team Elvis. Personally? I was there for both. There were so many of us that we took up about half of the tables in the place. After swarming the buffet (and it was GOOD chicken) and eating our fill, we settled in for the evening’s entertainment. The warm-up impersonators gave me time to digest and wonder if we’d be getting Young Elvis or Hawaii Elvis.
I didn’t have to wait long. Fake Patsy Cline wrapped up her act and a hybrid Young-Looking-But-White-Jumpsuit-Sized Elvis made his big entrance through the side door next to the dessert table. He was delivering a mean “Jailhouse Rock” when a wave of recognition washed over me. Elvis looked familiar, but that made no sense at all. Why on Earth would I know an Elvis impersonator? I am just not that cool. As I puzzled on the feeling, my friend sitting next to me – the one who had hired Larry Leather for her husband’s 40th birthday many moons before – grabbed my arm, moving so suddenly she knocked my empty chicken plate sideways, and said “OH MY GOD! THAT’S LARRY THE STRIPPER.”
It’s a uniquely twisted path that has the same guy taking you from a leather lap dance to “Love Me Tender”. I like a story that comes back on itself, so it makes sense that one of my favorite authors is Lyndsay Faye. There’s no author who can frame a twisted path like Lyndsay Faye, something she proves yet again in her latest book, The Paragon Hotel. The Paragon Hotel is the reading equivalent of a nonstop surprise birthday party-you think everyone’s forgotten it’s your special day, then you walk into a room full of people who can’t wait to see how you react when the stripper shows up. The book opens with speed and sparks as we meet Alice James, riding a train out of 1920s New York to get away from the guy who done her wrong. You think you’re getting a breakup story? Well, that girl’s got a gunshot wound she’s trying to hide from her nosy bunkmate. (That’s your cue. Yell Surpriiiiise! WE REHEARSED THIS.) As Alice’s train pulls into Portland, OR, and a sympathetic porter with a soft heart and a few secrets of his own gets her off the train and into hiding at Portland’s Paragon Hotel, Faye has teased more mysteries about our gun moll refugee than you think possible-that is, until you meet the residents of the Paragon Hotel.
Full disclosure: I have recommended Lyndsay Faye books before on this blog. And in person. And on Twitter. And I’ve given them as gifts. And once, on a trip to NYC, I made my friend Bryn walk with me for 1.5 miles to the Union Square Barnes & Noble because I wanted a signed copy of The Fatal Flame, a copy I knew would be there because I low-key stalk Lyndsay Faye across many social media platforms. I guess my point is I’m mostly harmless and nobody here needs to take out a restraining order, ha ha haaaaaaaaa, I’m just saying that everyone should have seen this recommendation coming from a mile away.
Lyndsay Faye’s body of work is defined by meticulous historical research that manifests in wildly interesting, unpredictable characters, and The Paragon Hotel is no exception. There aren’t any sidebar tedious dry authorial subject matter lectures. Instead, the book is filled with people in all their glorious, fickle, human fallibility. The Paragon Hotel is fresh, frank, and brutal. It demands your attention but never wastes your time. Alice’s story expands organically as she bears witness to the heartbreaks and joys of the people who took chances by taking her in while she reconciles herself to her sudden and shocking departure from New York. The Paragon is the eye at the center of multiple hurricanes, and that stormy energy drives the story in unexpected directions. Faye wants you to trust her; in return, she will respect your reading experience. The Paragon Hotel will wreck you, but it will reward you, too.
One day, Lyndsay Faye is going to write a novel about Elvis, birthday party strippers, and an out-of-the-way country restaurant famous for its fried chicken, and I am going to slam the pre-order button so hard it’ll rocket me into a new decade. Join me! I’ll save a piece of cake for you.
If reading this book puts you in a Pacific Northwest frame of mind, let the experts at Powell’s Books in Portland assist you.
If reading this book puts you in a Lyndsay Faye state of mind, start with Gods of Gotham and keep going.