Highway One, Antarctica: Stories
By Justin Herrmann (MadHat Press, 2013)
Justin Herrmann's impressive debut collection of stories takes us from pole to pole — from Antarctica to the coast of Northwest Alaska. In these places that are literally "on the edge," and at points in between, Herrmann's well-drawn characters are often pushed to extreme conditions matching their physical environments.
The author is an Alaskan who has worked in both polar locations — as a janitor at McMurdo Station, the scientific research center at the bottom of the world, and in the north. He knows the workaday world from which these stories spring, and he embraces the imaginative power of art. Herrmann recently earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage and already has an admirable publishing record; most of the 14 stories in this slim volume have previously appeared in well-regarded literary magazines.
What the individual stories have in common is young male narrators struggling to find purpose in life and to relate to others, especially women. Always interesting, always surprising, often very funny, these characters are less pathetic than endearing. Perhaps Hermann's greatest strength is his success in creating memorable characters with such empathy. In "Crayon Way Outside the Lines," the world-weary young man visiting his ailing former stepfather recalls, "We had a window that was boarded up for an entire winter. A can of cranberry sauce got thrown through it one Thanksgiving. I don't remember what the fight was over; the cost of my mother's classes, Cotton losing another job, me losing my sneaker in the creek. Maybe all of it, maybe none of it. Fighting was something that just happened, like rain, or car payments."
Power in commonplace things
In "A Terrible Sound," there's the guy in McMurdo, enamored by a girl named Daisy, a dishwasher with an art degree. "She's not special in that regard — this place is full of people just like her — but she's special in the fact that, for whatever reason, she chooses to talk to me."
In "Blessed," the narrator worries about his sister, with her abusive boyfriend and young son. "She is a good-looking girl, which is something I have heard about more than I care to say since she was in junior high. She is an assistant manager in a boutique in the Dimond Center, and if she is qualified to do one thing in this world, and I mean this in the most loving way, it is selling translucent plastic jewelry."
And, in "How Dolly Parton Ruined My Life," a befuddled narrator is on his way to Nashville with a girlfriend: "I thought maybe she had something important she wanted to tell me. Something, you know, that I might not actually want to hear."
Raymond Carver once wrote, "It's possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring — with immense, even startling, power." This is something Herrmann clearly understands, and his tone-perfect stories rely on language that's both plain — fitting the narrators and their situations — and freshly imagined. Sensory details are richly employed.
"I can't say I liked looking at her body in the traditional sense, but there was a kind of beauty there, like a nice sofa or a lighthouse."
"At McMurdo, things smell like diesel, or grease, or men. Even the women smell like men."
Laughs sound like worn fan belts, breaths are of wet wool and roast beef, and a hand jitters like a frozen-daiquiri machine.
'Saddest place on Earth'
Among the most vivid stories are those that depict life at McMurdo, described in one story as "the safest place on Earth" and "the saddest place on Earth" and made to feel exactly both. In "Polar Plunge," the narrator, one more clueless young man, accompanies the "fish girl," whose job is catching fish the biologists then study. In a hut out on the ice, the two drink beer and test one another. They talk about the antifreeze in fish, about carpet cleaning and about why they are where they are. Socks come off, feet smelling like Doritos dip into ice water. This story feels so authentic, in both physical and emotional details, that any reader must come away from it with a greater sense of what it means to pursue the ends of the earth.
Excessive alcohol consumption plays a role in nearly every one of these stories. While, in fiction, only trouble is interesting and alcohol abuse is a sure way of inviting trouble, this reliance could get wearisome. A talent like Justin Herrmann, we can hope, will expand his reach as he continues his craft and will transport us ever more deeply into our beautiful and sad world.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming."