From the bookshelf: Satirical novel skewers Alaska government

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Great Alaska Zingwater Caper

By Neil Davis

McRoy & Blackburn

$14.95 (softcover)

Neil Davis's new novel, "The Great Alaska Zingwater Caper" is likely to tweak the state's movers and shakers.

But for humble folk who look askance at how the power brokers conduct their business, this pointed satire is a hoot. Alaska readers who follow public affairs with skepticism won't know whether to laugh or cry at its send-up of current events.

Davis has written a penetrating critique of state business in the form of comic fiction. On the surface, his book tells the tale of six people who meet by chance on a Mexican holiday, hit it off and decide to go into business together.

The instigator is Harry Connor, a former research analyst for the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency. Life has dealt him two strikes. A broken knee ended his youthful football dreams, and the new administration in Juneau terminated his career exploring the little-known details of Alaska state financing. He is disillusioned and unemployed, but he has an idea to turn around his misfortune. On a charter boat off Puerta Vallarta, he is fishing for business partners as well as seafood.

He lucks into meeting Ernie Young, a crack accountant embittered after the end of both his job and his marriage, and Oscar Lawyert, a suave corporate attorney at loose ends after walking away from the ruins of Enron. Eventually the all-female boat crew also joins the venture as junior partners.

The gist of the business plan is to milk money from Alaska's probusiness public programs. Specifically, Harry wants to buy a repossessed wilderness lodge for a pittance, collect a big loan from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and walk off with the money.

"I've seen so many screwy ideas that have led to wasted money that I can hardly believe it myself," he explains to Ernie. "Remember, it is a weird situation here in Alaska. Any sense of reality that ever existed entirely disappeared when all the oil money started flowing, and of course that is why we have a chance of pulling off some of these schemes."

Harry guides his friends through the basics of how to feed at what he calls "the deep Alaska public trough." It's an eye-opening primer on how to curry political favor, build fake credibility, skirt the edges of legality and exploit the gullible rubes of the Last Frontier.

Soon the friends and their three intertwined corporations — led by the Boreal Investment Group Inc. (BIGI) — own the lodge, invest buckets of other people's money in a dubious mining venture and hobnob with the captains of industry and government.

Avoiding the obvious Alaska chestnuts of gold and oil, Harry and company seek their fortunes mining such modern mother lodes as zeolite (principally used in making kitty litter), bottled water and state government's convoluted deep pockets.

As the plans get bolder, more people get involved and scruples threaten the cynical underpinnings of their scheme.

Along the way, the author uses Harry as a mouthpiece to take Alaskans to task for greed, folly and mismanagement.

Davis accuses the voters of being asleep on the job, unrealistic and easily distracted from serious issues such as well-connected industries and individuals ripping off Alaska.

Elected officials and government workers are pressured to be cynical and short-sighted. He cannot resist digs at the current governor, calling him "a dull tool with a narrow focus."

But he reserves special scorn for AIDEA.

"AIDEA doesn't really care if it loses money — it's not their money, it's just public money that nobody asks them to justify spending," Harry says. "Keep in mind that the Alaska public is so far out of it that it doesn't know or care."

The plot contains enough suspense, character and manic fun to keep the story afloat despite such rants. The book avoids the pitfall of sour preaching, opting instead to emphasize humor and end on the up beat of hope, however fantastic.

The book's strongest suit is Davis's shrewd backhanded analysis of Alaska's boondoggles and shortcomings.

His background implies that this former professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and author of several books knows plenty of inside dirt about the shenanigans he describes.

According to his introduction, he served as chair of the Alaska Council on Science and Technology during the Hammond administration and as board chair for the Alaska Energy Authority during the Cowper administration.

The book's weakest part is the novelistic framework. Although the plot is engaging, many scenes read more like editorializing than storytelling. Most consist of business strategy sessions rather than action.

Overall, the dialogue and characterizations are stiff.

The satirical message overwhelms the story, which could have been developed and polished better. But it succeeds as a fun and brisk read.

Davis has a lot to say, and he is clever enough to know how to sugar-coat a bitter pill. He definitely is grinding axes in "The Great Alaska Zingwater Caper," but the results are pretty darn sharp.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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