Wednesday, March 20, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 16

Eric Shade on Melinda Moustakis' BEAR DOWN, BEAR NORTH

Viewing a map of the United States, one may tend automatically to overlook the nation’s two geographical extremes—Hawaii, the honeymoon getaway—and, of course, Alaska, that great, sprawling immensity, more Canada than America, which seems to occupy at least a third if not more of the territory of the Continental United States. Melinda Moustakis’ book will no longer let map viewers let Alaska hide in the periphery of their vision.

What is additionally and fundamentally remarkable about the stories contained in the book is that the state’s major cities—Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau—are themselves on the periphery. Most, if not all, of the action happens outdoors, or in ramshackle cabins, with the Kenai River as a frequent point of reference.

Most immediately demanding of our attention when reading Moustakis’ stories (and what has already deservedly been mentioned) is the striking imagery, particularly in “The Mannequin in Soldotna,” where the hospital staff decorates a mannequin with fishing hooks—hooks that have in fact been removed from patients and set into the mannequin, we imagine, as a warning to locals about the dangers of fishing—especially drunken fishing, fishing with amateurs, or fishing with folks where the relationship is strained.

There is more grotesque imagery, and plenty of brutality—both physical and emotional—but were Moustakis to rely merely on the unsavory and violent, the book would run the risk of seeming one-dimensional, even cruel to its own very charming characters. Instead, Moustakis tempers the freakish and frightening with, first, a generous supply of descriptions of the natural scenery; second, a fine-tuned, grim sense of humor; and third, a recurring, important theme regarding the complicated relationships between women, particularly mothers and daughters, in a land where the traditional gender roles are useless, in a land where women have to be as good—even better—than the men at providing basic sustenance for their families.

In more than one instance a sentence asks for rereading, not due to a lack of a reader’s initial understanding, but to appreciate again the savoriness of the phrasing. Consider this paragraph, a sketch subtitled “Run” from the story “The Mannequin in Soldotna”: “The salmon swim from river into ocean. They fatten up on shrimp and squid, growing until they are two of themselves. Thousands of miles after, the salmon ache for the milky blue waters of the Kenai. Their bodies quiver, and with one sudden pulse of blood, they turn degrees of north, they turn toward home.”

A fine (if pleasantly disturbing) example of the books’ humor appears in “Miners and Trappers.” “It’s, as Jack says, fucking February, when everyone goes crazy and shoots themselves in the head. Jean locks up his guns from Christmas to Easter, Baby Jesus to Dead Jesus to Just Kidding Jesus.”

Finally, what holds the book together thematically is the tension between mothers and daughters. Mothers who challenge their daughters to toughen up. Mothers who exaggerate their own toughness. Daughters who don’t believe their mothers’ stories. Mothers who insist that their own daughters have the option of having a life outside of the same harsh conditions with which they’ve become all too familiar. “This One Isn’t Going to be Afraid,” a series of anecdotes subtitled according to parts of the body, is perhaps the story that best exemplifies this theme. In the final section, called “Cheekbones,” the narrator, now living in California, recalls an old photograph of her maternal ancestors. “[T]hey have braided hair at the napes of their necks and are standing next to a 130-pound halibut. . .a line of black bass and ling cod lie dead in front of their fishing boots. My mother and grandmother and great-grandmother smile wide, smile with their whole bodies, but to me, their bones speak a louder truth. They say: We are stronger than you.”

All in all, this is a remarkable collection not only for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it stakes out—with authority gained from experience—the fishing and hunting and outdoorsmanship territory traditionally reserved for men, men like Ernest Hemingway or Rick Bass.


Eric Shade is the author of EYESORES (2003). He was born in rural Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Penn State University and the University of Houston. He lives with his family in Tokyo, Japan.