By Frank Turner Hollon; Dzanc Books; 2016; 232 pages; $15.95
As I've noted in a number of reviews, there's been a recent trend in northern fiction of stories about people fleeing to Alaska to escape their troubled pasts, seeking a last chance at creating the lives they weren't able to construct in the places left behind.
On first glance, "Jamestown, Alaska," by Alabama-based novelist and lawyer Frank Turner Hollon, would seem to fit the mold. The book's description says it's about a utopian commune in the remote wilds of the Last Frontier where things begin to go awry. Admittedly, T.C. Boyle already explored that idea in "Drop City," but any fears that this is a rehash of his book won't last beyond the first chapter. This is entirely different.
"Jamestown, Alaska" is a dive down the surreal rabbit hole where Philip K. Dick spent most of his career hacking at dirt walls. A dystopian novel where reality slips sideways, paranoia comes flying out of every burrow and a poor sap who's just trying to mind his own business finds himself wondering how he wound up in such a place — and whether escape is possible.
The poor sap in this tale is Aaron Jennings, an author of best-selling trash fiction living in an anonymous suburb with two young kids and a wife who mostly ignores him. The story begins with the mysterious appearance on his doorstep of a book called "The Survival Manifesto," which has no author or publisher listed and no note explaining who left it there. Aaron peruses the brief volume, which concerns the decay of society and the plan for a group of hardworking people to build a new colony in the Alaska wilderness, where traditional values of work, honesty and morality will be restored.
As he puzzles over who sent him the book and why, Aaron is shocked to find a man he has never met sitting in his living room. The man, whose name is Bryan, explains that the Jamestown described in the manifesto is an existent concern, and Aaron is being recruited to be the author who will write its history. All he has to do is travel to Alaska, visit the colony, meet with the committee in charge of it and decide if he wants the job, pending the committee's approval.
Of course, there would be no story if he didn't say yes. The next thing he knows, Aaron is northbound with Bryan, who pontificates at length on all the horrors of the modern world, including crime, infidelity, lack of respect and more, with an emphasis on school shootings.
The pair drives to a remote airstrip, flies to Canada on a private jet and then on to Alaska. Along the way, we learn Bryan is one of seven committee members overseeing the project. Others join en route, including a tall black man named Larry, who wears an ever-present chef's hat; an Asian woman named Lei, who's suspected of being a lesbian; and a perpetually angry fat Russian named Ivan. Such are the people who have charged themselves with saving humanity.
It only gets stranger when they reach Jamestown, where the rest of the committee awaits. Luke is an English dandy prone to self-mutilation; Adrianna is a gorgeous Brazilian, who Aaron is immediately lusting for; and Abdul is an elderly Muslim, who doesn't say much. There's also a Mongolian man who performs all sorts of tasks and just might have some power in this circle.
Jamestown itself lies in an undisclosed location in Alaska and on first glance appears to be a modern, very clean city populated by people from all over the world who share the goal of building a paradise. But who are these people really? And are those actual buildings or facades?
Aaron meets with the committee as a whole and here the Philip K. Dick comparisons run deep. Inane conversations are held between people who think they're intellectuals. Hidden meanings lie behind everything. Motivations are heavily obscured. The truth is forever shifting, never attainable to Aaron, and everyone is drinking heavily, with Bryan adding a constant stream of pills to his intake.
Aaron is caught in something he has no way of understanding, yet he's drawn into it. Here's the chance to leave his financially successful but boring life behind and become part of the vanguard of humanity. The only problem is figuring out just what that vanguard is, and whether it actually exists.
As I said, this is a book that evokes P.K. Dick at every turn and like a good Dick novel, it twists in all manner of maddening and unexpected directions. To say it evokes Dick, however, is not to say that it apes him. Hollon has his own distinct voice. He takes the blueprint and makes it his own. The desperation and paranoia are very 21st century and thus of a libertarian nature rather than conjuring Dick's collectivist nightmares. Hollon also avoids Dick's pulp fiction tendencies and his reliance on absurdist technological fantasies to explain away gaps in his story. Hollon's mind and ideas don't range as far afield as Dick's, but he's a far more disciplined writer.
One thing this isn't is an Alaska book. Despite its title and setting, Alaska plays no role in this story. Apart from a brief mention of Alaska Natives, there is nothing about the state here. It's just a blank spot on the map for Hollon, a place to plant his imagined colony.
"Jamestown, Alaska" is, however, very good, and if I'm highlighting the Dick comparisons a bit heavily, it's because Hollon is the first writer I've encountered in years who has captured Dick's paranoid-surreal vibe as well as Dick himself. In an era where paranoia is again on the rise, reality is falling prey to fake news and internet conspiracy theories, and stark individualism has run the culture off the rails, Hollon's book couldn't be more fitting.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.