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Fiction in Brief

IN EXTREMIS Alaskan Stories by Jean Anderson (Plover Press, distributed by Talman Co., 150 Fifth Ave, New York, N.Y. 10011: $16.95; 121 pp.)

September 03, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

Jean Anderson accomplishes two feats in her collection of stories. On the one hand, she offers as an object of study the Alaskan, an exotic frontiersman living on the edge of the modern world; on the other, she illuminates moments in human experience that can speak to any reader.

Her characters are "typical" Alaskans: special education teachers, fire fighters, artisans who practice the native crafts. The main character of the title story serves as cook in a remote settlement. He works those long, grueling shifts devised for company towns, where time off is useless unless it is long enough to escape to "civilization." Anderson convincingly renders a blue-collar lyricism in the voice of Len Peacock, who recites Yeats to himself while "swilling" airplane portions of Jack Daniels. As the plane descends, bringing him in for another stint on the job, he contemplates the ugliness of the oil fields. "It's a living," he concludes stoically as he disembarks. This particular stint may not be so colorless, he thinks, since he has designs on one of the new clerks.

Len's envisioned night of passion instead turns into a moment of revelation that changes his life. The girl he wants to seduce confesses to him that she was raped as a teen-ager. In her attacker, she says, "I thought I had seen the face of God." Although Len is repulsed by the "hell-holy non sequitur that's hanging in the air like some revealed truth," he admits to himself: "In an odd way, I even thought I knew what she meant. Then. As if, much as she hated what was happening, this brutality was her fate. . . . That she'd--well, just known everything would be downhill after."

Anderson manages, in story after story, to pinpoint the ultimate moments in which her characters glimpse the mysteries that define people. In "Vreelund," Amanda goes to a slide show celebrating her neighbor, an adventurer who died on a mountain-climbing expedition. Disgusted by the "deification process" set in motion by the meeting, she muses on her friendship with the strange, wild man Vreelund. He was no hero, she thinks; he was just crazy about mountain-climbing. She recalls her irritation when he read to her his mad love poem to Denali, the feminine name Alaskans give Mt. McKinley. Through this simple woman's thoughts ("What should it be called when the body had never been found? . . . his disappearance? His death--? His final ascent and transfiguration--?"), Anderson suggests the redemptive quality of the harsh nature that dominates Alaskan life.

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