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Strelow's Green Man Is Canary in Coal Mine

The Greening of Ben Brown, Michael Strelow's debut novel, was born in a bar in Eugene 25 years ago. That's the night the Willamette English professor first heard about the man who worked for Pennsylvania Light, took a high-voltage hit and turned green.

Strelow is a man with a fertile imagination, and when subsequent research led him to accounts of women who take on a greenish tinge during pregnancy, he decided he had the makings of a story. But perhaps even Strelow wasn't prepared for the emails he received from Pennsylvanians who asked, "Did you know this guy?" They did, and even related how kids in town used to throw rocks at his house. It was called "rocking the green man."

Of course, Strelow didn't stop with a light tinge. The fictional Ben Brown is the shade of an alligator under water or a dark frog. Novelists are granted leeway where the imagination is concerned, and when the storytelling is so off-the-wall funny.

After his accident, the Green Man moves into a town peopled with quirky, oddball characters, a Black Angus restaurant sign whose "G" burned out years ago, and teens whose biggest thrill is making out between the gravestones of two murdered lovers.

The mythical East Leven is shaped by a bend in Oregon's Willamette River, and the waters have shaped the townspeople as well; their identity is bound up with the river. But in Strelow's tale, there's a tension between how people define themselves and how they support themselves. In East Leven, the Horchow Chemical Company pays the salaries, keeps merchants afloat, funds local charities and--as the Green Man discovers--leaks toxins into the river. And that's the rub.

"I really wanted to pose larger ecological questions, but I wanted them to come out of the narrative," Strelow says. "Otherwise, it's the same old litany." He tried to keep the questions fresh by imbedding them in a zany cast of characters led by an unpretentious eco-hero, one who is so sensitive to pollutants that exposure makes him sick.

"I wanted to ask, 'What are the compromises we make to live here in this world? What's the price of having clean water, the true cost of living and spending energy? What's the cost of treading on this earth?'"

Strelow's book also poses questions about community. "If there's a Superfund site, who really pays? Who are communities for, and how do we live together? What's the nature of the color of one's skin?"

The book is Strelow's first novel. "I started writing 25 years ago, but teaching took so much time that I went to poetry, which takes shorter chunks of time." He also published some academic books along the way. But the muse--or the Green Man--kept calling, or perhaps the questions just seemed more urgent. Three years ago Strelow picked it up again.

"I locked myself up in a room with no people," he says. "Even the dog couldn't stay." There, Strelow dredged up memories from his childhood in Wisconsin, where he played in the settling ponds of the world's largest stream shovel maker. He pulled in the hardware store from Independence, Ore., and painted Salem's downtown in hilarious detail, down to the clock tower that's been broken for who knows how long. Strelow combined accounts of factories up and down the Willamette that have used the river as their trash can, and the uneasy truce between economic progress and environmental disaster in each town.

Strelow's undergraduate science background allowed him to write about chemicals as a kind of poetry. "I'm always going to be a science guy," he says. He wrote and rewrote the novel 30 times, deleting unnecessary characters, resetting scenes and looking for clunky sentences. "I have a Golden Retriever," he says. "I keep running my hand through her fur to get all the burrs out. Editing is like that. You're looking for a smooth surface." Strelow got lost in the process. "Writing annihilates time like nothing else," he says.

When Ben Brown took his bolt, he was "swinging by the threads of his heartbeat." That phrase could describe Strelow's writing. It swings by the threads of his heart, telling a perennial human story that always has the same complex twist. The Willamette professor tells it with refreshing humor and wisdom.

"There's nothing like writing," Strelow says. The same can be said for reading. "When you've read a good book," he says, "it just feels good holding it."

The Greening of Ben Brown was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards. The book jacket was designed by Willamette graduate Adam McIsaac. Strelow chairs Willamette's American Studies Program and teaches English. He is working on a second novel, The Moby Dick Murders.