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Footsteps at the End of the Earth : HUNGER IN AMERICA, By David Cates (Simon & Schuster: $19; 202 pp.)

August 02, 1992|Todd Grimson | Grimson's fiction has recently appeared in "Disorderly Conduct: The VLS Reader" and is forthcoming in "High Risk 2," an anthology of "forbidden" writing

David Cates writes about Alaska, but he does not present the familiar Alaska of grizzly bears and snow and ice, of hunting, fishing or dogs in the wilderness. Rather, with what appears artless vernacular grace, he paints a picture of disconnected dreamers close to the end of their rope, those who may have taken the idea of the American Dream very literally, interpreting it as the promise of something for nothing, a promise held out again and again. These are the people who would have been in the California Gold Rush or the Oklahoma Land Grab, and who are now excited by stories of easy fortunes to be made finding gold in Brazil.

Jack Dempsey Cliff fits rights in. He is bright but somehow not wholly formed, immature. He left his girlfriend back in Wisconsin after she had an abortion that he can't remember having ever discussed with her. He doesn't know whether he ever loved her or not.

At the age of 30, Jack has come to Kodiak Island, Alaska, to retrace the footsteps of his father, who abandoned the family just after Jack was born. Jack knows that his father served in World War II, was a prisoner at Bataan, and that he came north and was a fisherman as well as a boxer known as "Kid" Cliff. Kid Cliff has been dead for 15 years.

Jack isn't sure what he expects to find out, only that he feels as if he's been unconscious all his life, as if he's never really been fully awake. Maybe he'll experience some sort of a revelation, an epiphany about his identity and his place in the world. He doubts it, of course, but here he is.

"Hunger in America" takes place during one long evening and night, as Jack's one-month job as a cab driver brings him in contact with all manner of riffraff, drunks, prostitutes and old-timers, some of whom coincidentally recall the colorful Kid Cliff.

Kodiak Island materializes as a low-rent end of the world. A terminus. As if the people here have used up every place else. Nobody is uninfected by the aimless, ultimately destructive restlessness in the air. Everyone has left something behind, but no one is at peace.

One of the most affecting scenes occurs when a female cab driver, whom Jack knows only as "Fourteen," asks him, as a strange favor, to play out the fiction that he loves her, to repeat the formulaic words "I love you; you're beautiful," as she cries in the dark for another man. Jack feels more here, in ritualistic make-believe, than he could when a relationship was real.

All through "Hunger in America," Jack is trying to get something to eat, but he keeps being interrupted. He gets hungrier and hungrier as he stays up all night. At one point he buys some take-out fried fish, eats one bite, then leaves it on the car seat as he runs into a nightclub to pick up a passenger. When he comes out, he finds two drunks--the fares--eating his food. One of them turns out to have been a surrogate son to Kid Cliff--a stand-in for Jack. The first thing Kid Cliff ever did for this guy, Neil, was feed him when he was very hungry. It was the best meal he ever had.

In his trailer, Neil tries to cook some salmon for Jack, but he drunkenly drops the contents of the skillet onto the floor. It's arranged then that they will meet for breakfast at the Mecca Bar & Restaurant. Jack doesn't really expect Neil to show, but he thinks that at least he'll get something to eat. He gets more than he wants.

The novel plays out mostly within Jack's head, but from time to time takes us on excursions into the lives of bit players who cross paths with Jack in his cab. There is, in particular, Susan, half Blackfoot, maybe a prostitute. Jack sees her buy a gun on the street and later gives her a ride. She has been wronged by Neil, Jack's "brother," and she means to shoot him, or scare him. She's unpredictable and drunk, and wild. Susan keeps turning up, more and more soaked by the rain.

Jack Dempsey Cliff does find out exactly how his father died, from an eyewitness. He foresees that he may become friends with Neil, who in many ways is his doppelganger, one who has had the engagement with history, and with the father that Jack has so sorely desired and missed.

"Hunger in America" moves along as if in life-like, almost semi-documentary randomness, with lots of energetic dialogue and movement, but as it unfolds we gradually realize how skillful and inexorable a pattern has been woven. The ending surprises, yet in retrospect seems preordained, inevitable. David Cates' first novel, once read, becomes even more mysterious and haunting upon contemplation. The riddle of fate is beautifully posed.

Richard Eder is on vacation.

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