Author's quirky first novel full of surprises

Posted: Thursday, March 06, 2003

Paul Brynner subtitles his first novel "a different kind of Alaska fiction." That and the unusual cover painting promise that "The Conception of Sphinx" holds surprises. And the book delivers on that promise.

It deals with the angst of 20-something misfits in the quasi-urban setting of contemporary Anchorage. Brynner weaves together an intricate plot, extravagant characters and nonlinear scenes into a compelling, surreal story of sex, drugs and -- not rock 'n' roll -- but New Age spirituality.

The story centers on the odyssey of Greg Waters, a college dropout who returns to his hometown after his life loses momentum. When we first meet him, Greg is nearly catatonic. He has managed to get a job and an apartment after a period of aimless wandering, walking all the back streets of town.

"Something had changed in him a few years back. He'd dropped out of college, stopped drinking, stopped smoking pot, and stopped thinking about beautiful women. Urges gone into hibernation. Why?"

That "why?" is one of many questions Brynner puts to readers as he leads us through the protagonist's maze of disjointed thoughts and external quandaries.

"Thoughts just came to him -- they were coming to him all the time -- but he couldn't summon them. His mind wouldn't follow commands. His friends asked him to look inside, and he did look, and he found himself hollowed out, as if his memories had run away in fear."

The return of his best friends from high school disturbs Greg's queasy reveries. A once-inseparable quintet of outcasts who dubbed themselves "The Immortals," they turn again to each other after rocky forays into the wider world beyond Alaska. One, JP Bill, remains offstage, committed to an insane asylum. But the other three -- the manipulative bisexual Lolly, the charismatic loner Brace and the drug-addled Bulldog -- walk back into Greg's life and challenge him at every turn.

Greg works for an enigmatic organization called "Life in Balance."

"Is it a cult? A religion? A fly-by-night scam? Or does it work?" Brynner quotes his fictional newspapers' questions. "But people forgot about the questions before anyone could find the answers."

Greg's job is transcribing tapes of other people's dreams. It is an apt job for someone sleep-walking through life and disturbed by bizarre dreams of his own.

Greg is hesitant, the quiet one, the designated driver, the person out of the proverbial loop. But others notice him, even have plans for him. A beautiful and charming young woman named Amanda Lewis singles him out, and the people at Life in Balance tell him he has a knack. Soon his life warms up. Amanda's attentions blossom into a romance that rekindles his interest in life, and his employers groom him for a rise through their ranks.

But as the riddles of the past unfold, the answers reveal that Greg's present is as tenuous as the dreams and his future will lead in unexpected directions.

Some threads of the story work better than others.

A subplot about a Gold Rush diary is charming but its ties to the main storyline are vague. Far more successful is the integration of the New Age organization, Life in the Balance, its founder, Dr. Raymond Purine, and their impact on Greg's course.

Ultimately, Brynner succeeds at his goal of diverging from the pack of Alaska fiction. Although dog mushing makes a cameo appearance, his book avoids bear attacks, ice floes and other staples of northern literature.

But he is a genuine Alaska writer. Raised in Anchorage and still living there, he knows his turf. Whether he is describing Greg's fourth floor apartment off Boniface, the sidewalks of Spenard or road trips to Hope and Paxson, his details ring true right down to the dried cow parsnip stalks.

Brynner's vivid prose draws the reader into the Immortals' vortex of wicked wit and unsettling tragedy. Particularly, his picaresque characters stand out. He even draws a strong supporting role for an insect, the stalk-eyed fly that shares its name with the title character.

It would have been easy, with such an ambitious story, to go over the top. With its treatments of sex, drug dealing, abortion, self-mutilation and suicide, this is not a book for the squeamish.

But Brynner keeps his material under control. His shocking scenes serve, rather than derail, the plot.

Transforming central characters is a key to strong storytelling, and this book does that in spades. Watching Greg evolve from the beginning to the end is as startling as beholding the metamorphosis of a butterfly.

Brynner's greatest strength here is his skill at using psychological quirks and dark secrets to build suspense. He gradually peels back the layers of his plot until he reaches the bizarre conclusion. Even there, he leaves readers hanging with just enough unanswered questions to tantalize.

The book prompts an additional question: Where will Brynner go from here? After this strong and quirky debut, can we look forward to more intriguing tales from an up-and-coming Alaska writer?

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

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