“…Even a small group of citizens can start a movement towards positive civic change.”
June 2, 2023
By David Krogh
Picture this, a city with a neglected and dirty downtown, streets with potholes and no sidewalks, homeless campers in numerous locations all about, gentrification, corruption, crime and exploitation, general disorder and a lack of citizen participation or hope. Does this scenario sound familiar? In his book Neutral, No Brakes, Patrick Howard is describing a small fictitious city in California called Morley. However, he said that several cities he is familiar with, including Portland, suffer many of the same problems he highlights in his book.
Gentrification often starts with urban renewal, he opined. “A feeling of community is destroyed, in favor of speedily constructed high-rises, trendy businesses and new inhabitants with little historical or cultural memory. Examples include the Rose Quarter and Mississippi and Williams Avenues in Portland and others. Without appreciation of what truly sustains quality of life, vibrant communities and their attendant benefits can be easily lost.” And often the new development (as depicted in Morley) is lacking in affordability, has no sense of place and gradually succumbs to the negative influences of urban blight.
As suggested, the problems faced by Morley are common to many cities, including Portland. Howard clearly illustrates in his book that the interests of the public are more and more being redirected by the separate agendas of city officials and special groups.
“This is nothing new, but it has become unbearable in Portland. Whether due to incompetence, misguided ideologic zeal or old-fashioned corruption, the result is the same. Public input tends to be a sham, except from well-established special interests. Decisions affecting a community and its people are never made at the well-attended Town Hall, but rather in small gatherings of entrenched insiders, an echo chamber that is either ignorant or apathetic to the needs of common folk.” But this is the point, suggests Howard, where hope can be reborn, at least within the City of Morley.
The first quarter of the book is filled with character development. There are many interesting characters who represent diverse backgrounds including an ex-con on parole, an extremely knowledgeable independent book seller, LGBT members, government office workers, a quirky doggy daycare helper, a greedy landlord, foreign development agents, an unethical realtor, a homeless man named Harry and a deceitful mayor named Rusty.
Once readers are introduced to the main characters the story unfolds at a rapid pace with ever changing actions to keep interest levels high. This book is primarily for mature readers as Howard has stated he wanted to be realistic with his characters meaning “gender fluidity and sexuality as a matter of fact.” He sums up his characters as “there is good and bad in everybody, and I’m just trying to show the balance.” And with both the good and the bad illustrated, it is up to the reader to identify that balance.
Regarding the suggestion of hope for the City of Morley, Howard’s core group of characters band together to influence civic change. “Economic forces that harbor no loyalty to person, place, or community continue to roll along, unabated by institutions that should be looking out for our broader interests. The story of Neutral, No Brakes began as an attempt to make sense of it all.”
Howard makes it clear that change takes time, but that even a small group of citizens can start a movement towards positive civic change. That actually happened in the town that Morley was based on. “This is at its heart an optimistic tale. One will always encounter forces inclined to disrupt, destroy or tear down. It’s a constant struggle of order over chaos. Individuals and communities need to align themselves with the former and reject the latter. We must have faith in our ability to improve life for ourselves and those around us.”
Can local citizen activism work in a large city like Portland? Actually, it already has. One example is the process currently underway to change the current and outdated commission form of government.
Howard is a retired ER doctor living in Portland with his journalist wife, Carolyn. This is his first book and he is currently working on both a prequel and a sequel.
Neutral, No Brakes is available locally at stores like Powell’s Books and Suits Me Fine Creative Outlet Store in Sellwood and online at Amazon.
For more information, email Green Mill Press at email@example.com.
"An expansive, moving tale that illuminates the dangers of gentrification and the complexities of the human experience."
Howard’s debut novel, based on true events, reveals memorable characters and pressing social issues in a small town.
Morley, California, is a town of “convenience stores, payday loan outfits, discount houses, and dialysis clinics,” but it’s about to get a radical makeover. In a bid to attract investors, real estate broker Monica Sampson-Smith urges her ally and sometime lover Mayor Rusty Purnell to move ahead with redevelopment. The first victim of advancing gentrification is Morley Plaza, a drab strip mall past its prime but home to quirky, lovable characters that make up an offbeat community.
The novel’s short chapters follow the plaza’s inhabitants: tough but altruistic Dr. Sunita Reddy; film buff Jeremy Kelner, who’s trying to keep a video rental store afloat; Donna Hart, the owner of bookstore Pickwick’s Paperback Shack, which carries everything from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) to vintage pornography, and her self-appointed sidekick, Geoff Saboteau, a dog day care clerk whose disturbing hatred of local transients consumes him.
As Howard details his cast of characters with patience, sincerity, and precision, he reveals tender moments of human connection. The novel’s most moving plotline revolves around recent ex-convict Nic Troxell, who finds himself in a co-dependent, abusive relationship with a man he met through a prison pen pal program. Nic’s attempts to escape lead him to uncover crucial information that could save Morley Plaza, but there are many gray areas in this book; Nic’s feelings, for example, remain complicated—always precariously balanced between self-preservation, explosive anger, and compassion.
Whether dealing with large social issues or innermost truths, Howard keeps the various players questioning their allegiances—to lovers, friends, and politicians—and struggling to make the right choices.
An expansive, moving tale that illuminates the dangers of gentrification and the complexities of the human experience.
Selected Reader Reviews of Neutral, No Brakes by Patrick Howard
Make it a movie!
This insightful novel captures a contemporary slice of American life with empathy, accuracy and optimism. Well-written, straight-up engaging literature, built around a compelling cast of characters. It deserves a wide audience. I was struck by the authenticity of each character; I couldn’t get enough of them. My favorite is Nic, the newbie in Morley and a recent parolee. I wondered how in the world this author managed to get me to care so much about an initially unlikeable person. And what an ending! I never saw it coming. During a stint of homelessness, Nic lives with and learns from unhoused people and figures out how to survive thanks to a combination of smarts, ruthlessness, and the offerings of services trying in vain to help the homeless. It is written without judgement, but with excruciating, painful clarity, leavened with a hint of optimism ‒ attributes that Howard brings to the entire book. I can easily see this as a film or streaming series. (Visually and narratively, I am reminded of "Tales of the City," the Emmy-winning adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s novelized series that chronicles the zeitgeist of 1970s San Francisco. The run-down strip mall in Morley would serve as Anna Madrigal's house, and this series could similarly capture the current pivotal cultural and economic moment, one likely to be historically transformative.) In his debut novel, Howard demonstrates powerful talent, with prose that hits that sweet spot of keeping the plot chugging along as it's nestled inside succinct but colorful descriptions combined with cultural and psychological insights. The writing succeeds in balancing the morality of the story with the story itself ‒ no easy feat but one that is the defining feature of quality literature. Highly recommended!
Read it and then read it again!
A rare gem fueled by a combination of lyrical text and fascinating quirky characters. Written with a deep understanding of humanity, the consequences of decisions on self and others, and of personal and community strength. A novel full of heart, humor, and page-turning suspense. Hoping for a sequel. Giving it as gifts. A MUST-READ!!!!
A wild romp!
Neutral, No Brakes has it all ‒ from sex, violence and political corruption to a grassroots exploration of societal ethos, clandestine love and urban blight, all laced with an undercurrent of hope for the future. These beautifully constructed chapters weave a panoply of diverse, lovable characters, all searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. The players are unforgettable, their insights starkly poignant, the humor palpable and the writing witty, sophisticated and well-paced. I loved it! Would love to see a sequel!
Welcome to the quirky characters of Morley!
Visit the transitional California town of Morley and you will be introduced to an array of intriguing inhabitants who will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Howard paints his characters with vivid colors and subtle pastels. His prose is intoxicating. The story reflects underlying issues we face currently in our world ‒ political corruption, homelessness, crime, betrayal ‒ and yet the book is filled with love, redemption and hope.
It's all downhill from here
What an uplifting read—crime, government corruption, backstabbing friends, and small-town gossip. Who could ask for more? The path to redemption is never straightforward but is a path worthy of pursuing. Visit Morley, you will want to come back again and again.
Problems do have solutions...
I really like this book. It is relevant to conditions we are all too familiar with today—small-town corruption, urban decay, get-rich-quick gentrification and redevelopment schemes, and the failure to effectively deal with the problems of the unhoused population. The lives and relationships of the novel's characters are affected by these issues. They are ultimately able to transform their circumstances for the better, positively influencing local conditions as well as their own lives.