“Nobody Gets Out Alive: Stories”
By Leigh Newman. Scribner, 2022. 288 pages. $26.00.
Nine years ago, Leigh Newman, who lives, teaches and edits in New York City, published a superb memoir, “Still Points North,” about growing up in Alaska. She’s now returned with an equally superb collection of short stories that make use of much of the same memory-inspired material. The eight stories, most of which have been published in major literary magazines, feature a recognizable Alaska and characters living at its various edges, often in complicated, troubled relationships viewed with both humor and compassion.
In the title story, “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” Katrina and Carter have come from New York to Anchorage to celebrate their wedding at her oldest friend’s owner-built log cabin mansion on a lake. There’s a mastodon skull with two great tusks in the space where a large coffee table might otherwise have sat, and Carter realizes that his failure to imagine owning such an animal, never mind digging it out of the permafrost himself, as Katrina’s friend had, is a character failure all his own.
In that story, Carter watches Katrina skating on the lake, “miserable and forcing herself on for reasons he could only assume had to do with marching up mountains as a child, and conquering foreign equity markets, and believing, above all else, in pointless personal accomplishment.” He projects an image of himself as an Alaskan, “with a bow and arrow, a sheepskin slung over one shoulder, a glacier in the background.” It’s a fantasy, he knows, as he knows that Katrina’s theory may be correct: “Your average happy person didn’t last in Alaska. It was too much work not to die all the time.”
“Howl Palace,” a story that has already won a major prize and other recognitions, concerns another house on the same lake. Dutch, the narrator, is preparing to sell it after living there for many years with five different husbands and two floatplanes. The house has, among other features, a clamshell grotto and a wolf room. The real estate agent has told Dutch “not to bother pulling out the chickweed or flattening the rusted remnants of the dog runs,” but she decides that prospective buyers “needed to feel the atmosphere of the place, the homeyness. Fred Meyer had some plug-in tropical air fresheners on sale. I bought a few. Within minutes, the entire downstairs smelled like a burning car wreck in Hawaii.” She pulls 50 pounds of caribou burger and four dozen moose dogs out of the freezer.
Other stories involve a father-daughter wilderness river float, a fly-in winter ski trip featuring a troubled marriage and two challenging children, a sister reunion that goes from bar to bus to Valley of the Moon Park, and an unfortunate fortune teller. One story, “An Extravaganza in Two Acts,” imagines Anchorage as a tent city in 1915 and surely took considerable research. The longest in the collection, “Alcan, An Oral History,” tells the intersecting stories of five women, through time and space but linked to events on the road to Alaska, literally and figuratively.
Although the stories present the viewpoints and experiences of women, men and children, it is perhaps those depicting women’s lives that hold the most resonance. So often Newman’s women face physical hardship, loneliness, and marital and financial disasters, and yet they forge ahead with strength and resilience, fighting their ways past survival into versions of vindication and victory.
Always, Newman’s characters are well-drawn, resembling Alaskans we might well know ourselves. Consider Dutch, in “Howl Palace.” To set up her open house buffet, she drags a sheet of plywood from the snowmachine shed and heaves it onto her fungus-infected pool table. “If you are looking for a reason to split five cords of wood by hand each year for forty-odd years, consider my biceps at age sixty-seven.”
In that same story, a man named Carl appears. “Carl was the beautiful, bedeviling heartbreak of my life. His hair had thinned, but not so you saw his scalp, and age spots mottled his arms. His smell was the same as ever: WD-40, line-dried shirt, the peppermint soap he used to cut through fish slime.”
Alaska, too, is a character here. Newcomers imagine it: “In Alaska, people fished for their own food! We could get a woodstove! We could run out in the morning and make snow angels!” And: “Anchorage had sounded exotic — a city with five mountain ranges and a reindeer named Star, who lived in a backyard pen downtown.”
Alaska’s realities make their own appearances. On the river trip, “the air smells of spruce and hot new car from the raft rubber.” One of the dads, arriving late in his Bush plane, crashes into alders, and the other dad goes to his rescue, handing his 10-year-old a rifle with instructions to shoot a bear only if it charges. Both men eventually return to camp with “a black cloud of mosquitoes following them like smoke.” Another story includes the romantic gestures of a man who “showed up on the doorstep in the evenings with king salmon after king salmon — presenting each one the way some men might present flowers, lifting each one by the gill cover until his arm shook from the weight.”
Newman writes beautiful sentences, paragraphs, entire pages. It’s a pleasure to flow through her evocations of a world she obviously knows well, loves, and renders freshly. If “nobody gets out alive,” everyone in her stories lives richly until that time.