The Last, Best Lit 

Montana-based books for the waning days of 1999

The Book of the Tongass edited by Carolyn Servid and Donald Snow (Milkweed, paper, $19.95)

Even after living in the Pacific Northwest for a year, what shocked me most when I toured Alaska was the scale. Hitchhiking on the road out of Denali National Park, a girl asked me if I was going to town. I was confused for a minute until I realized that she meant Anchorage—over 200 hundred miles away, but truly the next town.

In his introduction to The Book of the Tongass, editor and Missoula native Donald Snow says, “It is the aim of this anthology to help people think about the Tongass and the future of Southeast Alaska.” The book, which contains diverse work by 15 different writers, certainly succeeds on one level, because since reading it I have not been able to stop thinking about getting back to Alaska despite what I know about the rain.

Specifically, I remember several long wet days hitchhiking to Valdez and by a stroke of dumb luck happening upon the tent city outside the fish cannery where the hippie girl worked and lived out of her van. Deciding, in a moment of deeply calculated self-interest, that the time was right to take up her offer of a place to stay, I walked up to the back doors of the darkened van only to find two pairs of rubber boots shucked off by the bumper. The dry place I did find that night was a chaise lounge under a tractor trailer across from the warm dry ferry I was waiting for.

I can’t believe that all rainy nights in Southeast Alaska end so miserably, and heck, even if they do there is plenty of solace available in the 17 million acres of the Tongass National Forest that represents the “heart of the world’s largest temperate rain forest,” as Snow puts it, which is also home to five species of healthy running salmon, the highest concentration of bald eagles in North America, and grizzly bears like crazy.

The writers who contribute to this anthology, a mix of transplants and natives who have all chosen to live in this wet, remote and beautiful part of the world for their own reasons, run the gamut from the usual suspects in books about forests to: a lawyer, a commercial fisherman, cultural anthropologist Richard Nelson, private investigator/novelist John Straley and UM assistant forestry professor Paul Alaback.

The writers write about what they know, whether it be hunting, logging or seedy crime, and generally avoid a preachy tone, although they are all decidedly for figuring out how to live in Southeast Alaska without depending on jobs in the extractive industries.

The central part of the book is about the trees, and in Alaska they are both the problem and the solution. The history of logging takes up a good part of The Book of the Tongass, and not without reason. Without the timber industry, few of the towns, airports and bars would be up there. The irony is that the timber provided the towns and infrastructure now enjoyed by the environmentally conscious second-growth dwellers (artists, writers, lawyers, cultural anthropologists and the like). Now the people who opened up the land to development and habitation American style are losing their way of life and have to live cheek by jowl in very small towns with many who believe what they did to earn a living was practically sacrilegious. To confuse matters further, not all the harm was done by the Forest Service’s unholy alliance with the timber industry. Snow says: “of the 1 million acres that have been clear cut in the Tongass, over half have been cut by Native corporations which are not held to the environmental standards applied to logging on federal lands.”

So it turns out that no one is blameless, and what is most refreshing about Tongass is that none of the authors is interested in blame or rhetorical victory. Their decided focus is establishing a core set of values that will enable everyone to build a future in the place one author refers to as the “the last place that America once was.”

—Bill Fanning

Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art & Activism by Rick Bass (Milkweed, cloth, $20)

No one has a keener eye for hidden mysteries than Rick Bass. After all, he has built a venerable career for himself by unearthing rich stories—both real and imagined—from what many of us all too often fail to understand, whether it’s the untouched wildness of northwestern Montana where he makes his home, or the vagaries of the human heart. So we should probably count ourselves lucky that such a skilled storyteller as Bass has now turned his attention to two of the more elusive passions that guide the creative mind: art and activism. Considering that those are about as fleeting as essay topics can get, Bass does a remarkable job of tracking them down and analyzing them in his new book, Brown Dog of the Yaak. But in the end, you begin to wonder if, this time, he has gone after mysteries so spectral as to elude even him.

Brown Dog of the Yaak takes as its premise an age-old duality—one that stems back at least as far as Proust, if not Plato—the long-standing battle between the life of thought versus the life of action. For the author that means, how does a passionate mind juggle the impulse to create art with the drive—maybe even the obligation—to pursue more grounded, socially relevant work? It proves to be a hell of a conundrum for Bass, who wrestles with it in a literary style so candid that it borders on stream-of-consciousness. Over 130 pages, he thinks aloud on the responsibilities he has to himself and to his community, while mulling the Yaak Valley’s own double role as a place of both wild beauty and environmental vitality. Through it all, Bass calls upon the memory of his long-lost hunting hound, the titular dog of the Yaak, who seems to embody everything that is lively and primal in the both writer himself and the land he loves. “[T]he dog was always real,” Bass spells out, perhaps a little too clearly, in the beginning of the book, “the writing, always shadow.”

While Bass explores both the inner and outer landscapes with some truly inspired prose (he describes a decaying mountain lion carcass, for example, as “a long ship of bones”), it never becomes clear just what his end-game is. Who says you can’t be both an artist and an activist? Isn’t writing a form of living? These and other self-evident questions are touched on, but not prodded too heavily, maybe for fear of dislodging the entire basis of the book. But in the last analysis, Bass concludes that there does indeed need to be a balance between art and activism. As he puts it in the waning pages, “two opposing forces are never really anything more than complex shadows of one another.” An eloquent conclusion, no doubt, but one you can’t help but feel is the obvious answer to a question no one asked.

If anything, the true solution to the mammoth question Bass wrestles with in Brown Dog of the Yaak is what he’s been doing all along. The author of such works as The Book of the Yaak and Where the Sea Used To Be, Rick Bass has stirred more discussion and aroused more awareness with his creativity than a hundred tree-huggers in matching T-shirts. That’s the struggle he has undertaken so well, and we should all hope that he keeps finding the inspiration to continue that fight.

—Blake de Pastino

Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn (Broadway Books, paper, $14)

Justin Cobb is, according to his dentist/confessor, the “King Kong of oral obsessives.”

In the beginning of this novel by Livingston writer Walter Kirn, Justin can’t get enough of the sweet relief his thumb in his mouth provides. But then his dentist hypnotizes Justin in an attempt to rid him of his increasingly age-inappropriate habit.

“When you feel like sucking your thumb,” Dr. Lyman tells Justin as he’s attempting to relax in the dentist’s chair, “call your power animal for help.”

Justin manages to picture a deer with the face of a troubled classmate who wears diapers to school, and the hypnosis is a success. Too much so. After he goes under, Justin no longer feels a thing when sucking his thumb, forcing him to fill the hole with a variety of substances—codeine-enriched cough syrup, Ritalin, a spot on the speech team and even Mormonism—but none of the potential substitutes can ease the fact that Justin feels like a stranger his own house, his own school, and most importantly his own skin.

At the root of Justin’s discomfort is his family. Justin calls his mother and father Mike and Audrey, and often speaks to them as if he’s their parent. Mike is an ex-University of Michigan football star obsessed with the lessons his coach taught him, such as “winners treat every practice as a game,” who also stumbles around the house singing nonsensical songs. Audrey is a nurse who seems to dreamily tolerate life rather than live it. She gets the idea to enter a Knox gelatin contest to win a “dream date” with ’80s hunk archetype Don Johnson as a way to infuriate Mike, and when he eventually finds out, he’s devastated she could find such a “homo” attractive.

In a typically frank exchange, Justin tells Mike he’s making the situation worse.

“You’re going to lose her,” he tells his father. “You’ve given up. You talk about all these couples getting divorces and then you treat your own wife like a cleaning lady.”

As his family’s eccentricities intensify, Justin explores relationships with a collection of equally strange characters outside of his home. One of the book’s weirdest segments is when he and a girlfriend steal the baby of a drug-dealing couple whose idea of childcare is to stuff their infant in a cardboard box and blow pot smoke through a hole punched in the side. When the baby is sufficiently high, they then strap earphones blasting stoner rock to its head.

Justin wryly continues through adolescence gliding through a number of other surreal scenes until salvation seems to arrive at his family’s front door in the form of two suit-wearing Mormon elders. It seems unconvincing that the Cobbs join the flock so willingly, but this piece of Thumbsucker is based on the author’s actual experiences.

Kirn reveals Mormonism to be adequately cultish, complete with nubile young descendants of Brigham Young who see it as their duty to offer sex to those with waning beliefs in exchange for a renewed commitment to the religion.

In the end, readers are left with the feeling that Justin will someday find his way out of the thicket of dysfunction, relying on a combination of wit and banality that often works to his advantage. Similarly, Thumbsucker is ultimately an entertaining and quick read, not ground-breaking but possessing an intriguing combination of the bizarre and the mundane.

—Sarah Schmid

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray (Milkweed, cloth, $19.95)

Once we are grown, so many of us try to glean some sense of who we are by retracing the steps of our childhood, remembering the worlds we inhabited as children. Often, reliving the events in our memories presents a wholly different version of truth than the one we believed in when we were young. Enhanced by our larger, adult frame of reference, the secrets, fears and wonders of the past slip into position within a more ordered and mature world view.

Such is the case with Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a memoir by University of Montana alumna Janisse Ray, in which one woman’s recollection of her girlhood in rural Georgia is juxtaposed with the area’s natural history. A tone of regret permeates Ray’s writing. Her links to the past, to the people she came from, to those she loved, and to the natural environment she has come to love seem tinged with confusion and longing. Like the words of someone who has just awoke from a long, deep slumber.

Throughout the book, Ray retraces the lives of her ancestors, paralleling the disappearance of natural flora and fauna with the struggle of people she knew to eke out an existence within an economy of poverty. She offers an explanation for the sad disappearance of the grand long-leaf pine forests, its disastrous impact on countless other species, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of folks like her kin. “More than anything else,” she writes, “what happened to the long-leaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.”

It is with disbelief that she tells of her father’s religious zealotry, of his mental illness, of her mother’s long-suffering devotion, and the uncertain effects of such things on her family. The reader is left to draw her own conclusions. Ray turns to the forest for answers, looking for some greater order behind human entanglements. And while her knowledge of that ecosystem is extensive, even intimate, her insights into the her own family somehow come up short. Foremost among them is, despite everything, her unflappable allegiance to her father, which she relates in a detached voice that resembles more that of Janisse Ray the child than Janisse Ray the adult.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a story of time and place. As a window to a girl’s experience of growing up across from her father’s junkyard and alongside nature that seemed to elude her until she was grown, it acts to apprise the reader of the fact that our links with the past are tenuous at best. So often, just as the passage of years is etched in our bodies, the effect of our passing is recorded in the register of the environment, in disappearing long-leaf pine and gopher tortoises, likely never to be the same again.

—Tina Mills

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