Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes (Simon & Schuster: $17.95)
Sunny Deauville is the highly successful proprietor of an Alaskan bordello, though for all the bearing her occupation has upon the novel, she might as well be president of the National Organization for Women. Her true calling is raconteur of her father's Bunyanesque exploits, and she shines. Her verbiage (or more precisely, Hawkes' prose) is chaste, highly colored and quite formal, as befits the descendant of French aristocrats removed to Connecticut to improve the family fortune.
When the stock market crashes and the remaining Deauvilles find themselves again in sadly reduced circumstances, Jack Deauville packs up his gentle wife and infant daughter to start afresh in Alaska. There he renames himself Uncle Jake, a moniker more appropriate to the northern wilderness than John Burne Deauville, Dad, or even Father, none of which he henceforth allows. In Juneau, Uncle Jake at once embarks upon a life of adventure, the one and only profession for which he seems qualified.
Lode Doesn't Pan Out
How he supports his small family remains a mystery, since his missions are entirely altruistic, except for one aberrant escapade in which he risks his life climbing a mountain he believes to be a mother lode of copper. When the "copper" proves mere moss, he reverts to his policy of never doing anything for pecuniary reasons. From that disappointment on, his subsequent escapades, like his previous ones, are entirely unselfish, motivated either by love for his fellow man or undertaken for the pure impossibility of the challenge itself.
Uncle Jake kills marauding bears, rescues the imperiled, comforts the despairing, aids the disabled, and finally sails off to retrieve a legendary totem pole surrounded by the figure of Abraham Lincoln.
Not all these adventures end in triumph, though enough do to maintain the mythological tone. Uncle Jake is a giant among men; his partner, Frank Morley, is cast in the classic mold of batman to the great. His Indian sidekick Sitka Charley is loyal and true, the bush pilot Ainsworth a model of intrepidity. Sissy, Uncle Jake's spunky wife and Sunny's loving mother, is the paradigm of all pioneer women.
All the tangential characters are built to fill specialized frontier roles--the district nurse as a brisk angel of mercy, the town dentist as an inspired lecher, the assorted prospectors, natives and visiting mainlanders as bundles of exaggerated traits and attributes. "Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" is Western legend revived, renewed, brought almost up to date. And for this sort of fantasy you need a wild and formidable landscape--and Alaska fills the bill.
Each chapter is an independent set piece, as removable as the hit song of a musical. One can easily imagine segments of "Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" being told around a campfire to a circle of wide-eyed tenderfeet as the hot dogs sizzle and the marshmallows blacken.
A Darker Design
Putting squeaky-clean fiction into the mouth of a madam, no matter how well spoken she is and how innocent her childhood, seems to hint at larger and more ponderous symbolism. While Sunny Deauville is a superb pilot herself and a splendid horsewoman, with the business sense of Iacocca and the filial virtues of Cordelia, her chosen career casts a peculiar shadow over the romance. Sunny's unequivocal adoration of her father, combined with the nightmares that send her on her quest for the truth of his life and death, hint at a darker Freudian design just waiting to be exposed by assiduous academics.
Until they get their hands on it, "Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" remains a romp through an ancient storytelling tradition. Throughout the book, the author asks us to take a second look at cherished notions of good and evil. Sunny Deauville and her naively lovable father make a pair of terrific guides for the tour.