The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea
By Rosemary McGuire; University of Alaska Press/Alaska Literary Series; 2015; 160 pages; $15.95
In the nearly century and a half since Alaska was acquired by the United States, writers have worked to establish a literary tradition for the nation's northernmost region. Nonfiction authors have done well, beginning with the earliest visitors to these parts who captured pre-Gold Rush Alaska with a clarity invaluable to today's readers.
John Muir set the standard early, but even in his day, there was plenty of worthy competition -- work now freely available on the Internet. The tradition he started has never fully flagged, although it resurged tremendously in the wake of the trans-Alaska pipeline as authors who came of age in the environmental era confronted the conflicting values of nature and human experience as they played out on the landscape.
Fiction has had rougher haul. The Gold Rush brought a brief blooming best epitomized by Jack London, who despite his shortcomings captured the ways that the land, sea and climate of the north can dwarf and easily consume those who venture into it.
Unfortunately, not many followed his example over the next century, and while decent works appeared here and there, Alaskan storytellers turned mostly to pulp fiction, self-published dreck and detective novels. Many books in the latter category are actually quite good for what they are, but they aren't what a literary tradition is built upon.
Better grasp of realism
Over the past decade, however, something has been happening. In two novels and a novella, Kris Farmen has emerged as a deeply skilled storyteller. Don Reardon's debut novel and scattering of short stories indicate that another master could be in our midst. Short-story collections from Tanyo Ravicz and Melinda Moustakis among others have tunneled deeply into the lives of those who live here.
While these works vary greatly, what they have in common is a sense of how this vast and beautiful, yet harsh and indifferent, land can be too much for troubled people struggling to get by, and how the outposts of civilization we've built here easily become hopeless and inescapable traps. To different degrees, all these authors explore tragic lives in a place too big for humans to fully situate themselves in. It's a growing trend that harkens back to London but with a better grasp of realism.
Into this arena steps Rosemary McGuire, whose debut story collection "The Creatures at the Absolute Bottom of the Sea" fits comfortably alongside the works of the writers mentioned above, indicating that what appears to be a developing literary tradition is not a fluke.
McGuire's stories take place at sea, in fishing villages and in remote locales. Virtually all of her characters carry past failures into the brief episodes she sketches. In one way or another all will be impacted by death, either their own or that of someone with whom they had a complicated relationship. Nothing is simple; joy is nonexistent.
It's dark work for certain, but all of it is finely crafted by McGuire's writing. In short sentences she sets large scenes. In the opening story a financially strapped skipper hoping to escape his father's legacy of failure takes an underprepared boat to sea and gets caught in a deadly storm. McGuire says all she needs to in just one paragraph:
"This wind was like an enemy. It tumbled them, playing the way a cat might play a mouse. And they would lose in the end. No one had ever outlived the water; and the water had never cared about anybody, and never would. It didn't even know. That was the thing. There was no one to know. The sea just was. It wasn't anybody."
In rendering the sea an inanimate entity she lends it character. By being nobody, it becomes somebody. Perfectly tuned paragraphs like this one are found throughout the book. Rarely is Alaska's essential nature so well captured, and she does it without superlatives or cliches.
The human side of nature is drawn with similar concision. In the second story, the angry crew of a fishing vessel edges toward revolt against its violent-tempered captain. As conditions on board rapidly deteriorate, McGuire's narrator tells us,
"I felt others draw away from me. We were not a crew; we were only here at the same time. For long moments I couldn't even remember their names. So there was no relief, no relief at all. Because we couldn't pull together."
These aren't the conditions for either a successful haul or a successful mutiny. As she does throughout this book, McGuire lays it out with as few words as possible, every one of them carrying the weight of the entire scene.
Readers looking for relief from the existential sadness of these tales won't find it. Characters are pitched overboard, they crash their trucks, they drink themselves to death. Those who survive are left wondering why they should. In McGuire's telling it's as if merely staying alive in Alaska is pure chance. Slow-building desperation tempered by helpless resignation is the default mode for her characters. What she conveys certainly isn't true of all Alaskans or even most, but we have all encountered the people she imagines. Her characters have authenticity.
Intentionally or not, McGuire and the authors mentioned earlier are working along similar lines and in the process possibly creating for Alaska a long-absent, distinctively northern literary fiction tradition. They're building off something London established more than a century ago. They're fashioning stories where the land and sea are paramount factors, their scale leaving human endeavors all the more hopeless.
It's not a happy Alaska, nor is it the entirety of Alaska. It is, however, very true to certain aspects of Alaska. We've been needing this.
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.