Books

Book review: The posthumous short fiction of Frank Soos is a lasting gift

The Getting Place

By Frank Soos. Boreal Books/Red Hen Press, 2022. 232 pages. $16.95.

Readers and writers in Alaska and beyond are grieving the loss of Frank Soos, a beloved emeritus professor from the University of Alaska and Alaska’s Writer Laureate from 2014-16, who died in a bicycling accident last August. Soos was known for his close, empathetic examination of human lives and for the fine craftsmanship of his essays and short stories. Boreal Books has now posthumously brought to readers a final book of his short stories, “The Getting Place.”

The nine lengthy stories in “The Getting Place” are richly varied, taking place in Interior Alaska, coastal Maine and the coal-mining region of Virginia where Soos grew up. The principal characters are men and women; young and old; wealthy and poor; saintly and deeply flawed; intimate with classic literature, fly-fishing, car parts, acts of love and acts of betrayal. They resemble people we know or might know, and Soos’ genius lies in taking readers into their complicated lives and troubled souls, sharing what it means to be human.

In the title story, “The Getting Place,” a petty thief has disappointed everyone in his life and has come to think that, despite everything, “he would continue to live his life much as it had been,” “the way his daddy before him and his daddy before him had lived.” The story, though, also flows into the perspectives of several other characters, including a preacher, another churchman and a junkyard owner — all individuals looking for the places where they’d get what they thought they wanted.

“Sitting Down to Read ‘Anna Karenina’ Again” takes place in a recognizable Fairbanks, where a woman — a wife and mother — begins to reread the Tolstoy novel and wonders, with the opening line about happy and unhappy families, which kind she lived in. Readers needn’t be familiar with the famous novel about marriage and adultery to appreciate the woman’s restless seeking and the effects of her decisions on others. Still, the references make the story, as troubling as it is, a particular delight. At one point, when the woman discusses with a friend the goodness of one of the novel’s characters, she surprises herself by saying, “That’s Tolstoy trying to fix everything up for you, making you think there’s something better if you’re just patient and stay away from locomotives.”

Another Alaska-based story, “Her One Night in a Tent,” involves a recently divorced wealthy-enough woman who arrives in Fairbanks as a summer tourist with the idea that she might look up an old boyfriend, a ceramic artist whose website gave her the impression that he’d — finally — made a success of his talent. The story asks, like others in the collection, what makes a satisfying life and what control do we have over achieving one? When the woman looks into a hotel mirror, “She couldn’t think of what she should do next, next in this day, next in her life. If she’d let herself, she might have had this thought before she bought a ticket for Alaska. But here she was.”

Among all the stories, each one more resonant than the one before, perhaps the most ambitious is the last, ”The Life of Charlie Winters as Five Disappointments.” This story begins with Charlie, a successful lawyer, falling from a boulder in a river and losing his prized fly-fishing rod. The next five sections carry us through his life’s disappointments, focusing in turn on his son-in-law, daughter, wife, country and self. The story has the feel, like an Alice Munro story, of being an entire novel, so thoroughly do we immerse in the life of Charlie and his family across decades of life. Will we see that fly rod again?

Altogether these are true stories — not true in the sense that they happened but true both in their depictions of places and people and, more importantly, in the ways of human hearts. In “The Discovery Process,” a young idealistic lawyer returns to a Virginia town near where he grew up. His legal aid office is an old storefront, and his typewriter has “coal dirt worn into the once-white keys … though coal had not been mined nearby for almost twenty years.” The discovery, in the end, refers to truths of the man’s “hillbilly” people, his family, and his capacity to hurt and be hurt.

We’re fortunate to have these final, lasting stories from Frank Soos, this conclusion of mature work marked by insightful and kind examination of our world and how any of us make our way through it. Readers may well want to return to his previous stories as well, the collections “Early Yet” (1998) and “Unified Field Theory” (2010). His nonfiction includes the elegant, philosophical “Bamboo Fly Rod Suite” and, most recently, “Unpleasantries,” an essay collection.

The gorgeous book cover features art by Margo Klass. The two, partners in life, collaborated earlier on “Double Moon,” a book of intimate interplay between images and written responses.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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