Friday, October 07, 2011

Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories by Melinda Moustakis

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

·         Hardcover: 144 pages
·         Publisher: University of Georgia Press (September 15, 2011)
·         Price: $24.95
·         ISBN-10: 0820338931
·         ISBN-13: 978-0820338934

It’s been many years, too many, since I set foot in Alaska, but opening the pages of Melinda Moustakis’ debut collection of character-linked Alaskan stories brought me back instantly into that stunningly wild and beautiful landscape. Bear Down, Bear North is a series of vignettes about life in Alaska, some as short as a few sentences, written in resonant and poetic language. Poetic, yet not flowery. This is the poetry of northern wilderness, sparse, even cruel in its precision, yet breathtaking.
Consider the opening lines of the vignette titled “Trigger”:
“You were conceived on a hunting stand, they say.
“Which means: We had no other place.
“The homestead is full of my mother’s siblings. On the stove, a pot of potato chow big enough to feed twenty. See my mother, back roughed against the wooden platform in the trees. See my father, finger on the trigger—in case.
“You have to gut a moose right away, they say, or the meat rots in its skin.
“Which means: We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.”
And so, before you’ve even properly stepped over the threshold to enter this world Moustakis has word-painted, you are already catching your breath, spanning the horizon, perhaps looking for an exit in case of sudden danger, but more likely, a shadowy corner so you can stay as long as possible, surveying the scene of these hardened and colorful characters. Your eye lands on one wonder after another, and from these, you draw your story.
Moustakis writes in second person. She addresses you, wrapping you inside her main character so that lines blur, so that the effect of the surroundings is that much more immediate. Not many can pull that off. Second person is a literary least favorite stance, left for the highly skilled, and Moustakis is that.
With each vignette, both place and person is brought to harsh life. You begin as a little girl, but already schooled in survival. We’re not talking pigtails. This is a family, three generations, of Alaskan homesteaders, of fishermen and fisherwomen, trappers and hunters. Your mother smokes a Big-Z cigar to keep the mosquitoes away while fishing. Your brother stabs himself in the chest after too many swigs on the vodka bottle. Your daughter has perfect aim. Even the fish in these vignettes speak to you, so alive, so red, so struggling against the elements.
“The days are long and thin. The salmon keep to the shallows near rotting trees. With reaching fingers, the Kenai tugs at their tails, drawing them to the channel. The salmon wrestle the water, tap their last beats of blood and when the river wins, they drift and fodder downstream. Their bodies are carried, broken, and fed to the currents.”
Which, above, is an entire vignette, titled “Run.” The beauty of these short pieces is beyond argument; the danger, which may indeed add to the beauty, is that Moustakis has dared to write by using words and lines and language in almost equal leverage to the space between. The space between leaves room for the reader to consider the story, and there are times that this technique can leave one feeling a bit stranded, disconnected, carried away by the current. At times, I lost my thread, wondering even if I was reading about animal or human—who was this? In what role? Yet that same current would pull me irresistibly forward, and I very nearly didn’t care if I knew or not. Just wanted more.
It is such literary artistry that will put Moustakis quickly on the literary map, outline her name in stars, bullet it as a name to be watched closely. It may also keep her from bestselling tables for the mainstream reader who seeks a more traditional storyline. I would hope that particular seduction will fall flat for the author. She is a trailblazer, a unique voice, a literary leader. I suspect she writes as she writes because all else, anything less daring, would be impossible to her.
For those who hold fine literature in high esteem, Melinda Moustakis is indeed a name to watch. She’s not just going places. She is already there.
Bear Down, Bear North won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Moustakis was also recently named in the “5 Under 35” authors of 2011 by the National Book Foundation. She is a visiting assistant professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

~for The Smoking Poet

Visit Melinda Moustakis blog to learn more.


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