In this graphic novel, what begins as an affectionate reminiscence of the author’s 1990s teenage infatuation with the late actor River Phoenix morphs into a remarkable, sprawling account of the city of Portland and state of Oregon’s dark history of white nationalism.
Murphy is a Portland native who has a genuine affection for River Phoenix, and her heart-racing descriptions of scenes like the infamous campfire kiss My Own Private Idaho serves as a moral anchor to a deeply amoral history. Murphy details the relationship between white supremacist Tom Metzger, former KKK Grand Wizard and founder of the White Aryan Resistance, and the “Rose City” street kids like Ken Death that infiltrated Van Sant’s films – a relationship that culminates in an infamous episode of Geraldo. This story brilliantly weaves 1990s alternative culture – from Kurt Cobain to William Burroughs to Keanu Reeves to the Red Hot Chili Peppers – with two centuries of the Pacific Northwest’s shameful history as a hotbed for white nationalism: from the Whitman massacre in 1847, to the Ku Klux Klan’s role in Portland’s city planning in the early 1900s; to the shameful treatment of black people displaced in the 1948 Vanport flood; and through the 2014 armed standoff with Cliven Bundy’s cattle ranch. Told in the style of an illustrated diary, with wet, blue ink washes, the other protagonist in this tale is Murphy herself, a gender queer kid trying to process all of this.