“What is Time to a Pig?”
By John Straley. Soho Press, 2020. 264 pages. $26.95
Who can resist a novel that begins with this: “It was late fall on the road to the dump just outside of Cold Storage, Alaska, when the mouse that would save the world scampered across the snow and first smelled a hint of rotten food.”
Sitka author John Straley, best known for his Cecil Younger series of detective stories, has now brought readers the third in his Cold Storage novels, set in a Southeast Alaska boardwalk town of that name. In “What is Time to a Pig?” the year is 2027, "seven years after the U.S. president’s war with North Korea, and the whole world had gone a little crazy.” North Korea had sent a nuclear-armed missile — which fortunately “fizzled” like “a bundle of sparklers” — into Alaska in an attempt to threaten America’s oil supplies and frighten U.S. leaders to the negotiating table. Somewhere in or around Cold Storage, one misfired warhead was missing and might yet detonate.
Meanwhile, a man named Gloomy Knob, nicknamed after a landmark in Glacier Bay, is serving a life sentence in a nearby prison known informally as Olympus and formally as the Ted Stevens High-Security Federal Penitentiary or T.S.H.S.F.P. (Straley’s well-known wit, often of a caustic kind, is on display throughout.) Gloomy had grown up in Cold Storage and was convicted of murdering his sister and kidnapping his mother. Because of his good prison behavior, he has a rather cushy job outside the prison walls, tending a bonfire at the site of a women’s prison under construction. Gloomy, who once wanted only to work in the woods as a logger, “could think of nothing he wanted more than to stand on the beach and burn construction trash with a guard holding a gun on him.”
It turns out that Gloomy isn’t all that clear about what happened to land him in prison, but he is loyal to his cousin co-defendant as well as in no hurry to be released into a dangerous world. Both government authorities and Iranian spies are looking for that missing warhead — and think that Gloomy knows its whereabouts.
What follows is a madcap race to find the warhead before it detonates. There’s an explosion at the construction site and Gloomy disappears — hidden by his captors in a hollow log floated out to a log raft. Free, he wants nothing more than to return to his prison. “Institutional poverty was all he could hope for on the outside now. Or maybe the state had compressed his mind into the neat shape of a small rectangle.”
Instead, he reconnects to family and friends and a past he wasn’t completely aware of.
Other characters take their turns in the narrative, sometimes in long asides spelling out their histories. Rocky and Norma have their reasons for rescuing Gloomy. Lester Plays-with-his-Face had been Gloomy’s cellmate, or “cubemate,” until meeting an unfortunate end — or did he? Cousin Ishmael Muhammad — “Ish” or “Itchy” — has his own troubles. Wife Karen owns a big backstory. Then there’s Ali Wild Horses, founder of the Second Ghost Dance Movement.
Through all this, Straley has brought together what are clearly social and political issues he cares deeply about — even as he lampoons them. In his dystopian near-future, prisons — “containment boxes, the machines that separated good Americans from their wayward children” — are as common as schools and considered an important, positive industry for Alaska. The world has barely survived an ignorant and careless president. Rogue countries are building and trading nuclear weaponry. The usual family and societal problems compound.
“It’s complicated,” one of the characters, back from the dead, says at one point. Indeed, the wide-ranging and sometimes hallucinatory plot with so many characters and so many side trips into their lives, along with commentary about our prison society, inequality, and political and religious movements does get complicated and sometimes confusing. Who are the good guys? Where is the evil? What actually happened and what is imagined or induced by drugs or torture? Why is that woman buried in a box on the beach? When was that? John Straley takes us on a wild ride, but with the reins held firmly in his able hands.
Straley, who is also a poet (“The Rising and the Rain”) and a former Alaska writer laureate, writes passages of considerable beauty, even when they detail violent acts. Here’s Gloomy, tending his pallet fire while recalling a severed head “on the gray pebbled concrete of the shower floor”: “The flames curled like the chrysalis of burning hair around a skull.”
“What is time to a pig?”— the source of this book’s strange title — is the punchline to a joke Gloomy tells his prisonmates near the start. Time and its malleability is a major theme here, as the story investigates its passage and the lives of those “unstuck from traditional time as a result of being kept in cages where nothing happened according to their own will.”
And that mouse? Yes, don’t forget the mouse! The Cold Storage mouse disappears into a vent in the snow, but the story is not over without her.