Stories highlight Alaskans' quirks

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2004

Alaska's stories don't need bears, salmon, sled dogs or surviving brutal cold to be colorful. The state's people provide plenty of eccentric entertainment even without the standard rustic accoutrements.

In "Alaska Unsalted," former resident Bill Miles has created a collection of fictional short stories that well illustrate that fact. Most of his tales are set in late-20th-century Anchorage, but the characters and events they depict are anything but mundane.

A strong sense of character buoys the eight stories in this debut anthology. Miles takes readers behind the scenes of a funeral parlor, a bingo hall and a gala ball for drag queens to experience Alaska's two-legged wildlife. He features people usually overlooked in tales of northern adventure, such as Little Joe Soto in "A Rube's Game:"

"So far, he was well aware that he'd missed all of Alaska's opportunities to get rich. He hadn't been born during the gold stampede or in whaling days. He'd arrived in Alaska after oil was struck in the '60s and after the pipeline was built in the '70s. He'd even missed the big oil spill when Exxon paid $17.50 an hour for seven, 12-hour days to anyone who could get to Valdez and who was willing to scrub rocks."

Half the stories deal with such misfits, flawed but sympathetic. The author lays out their odd misadventures, minor or major, with a flair for quirky details and wry wit. For example, in "Dancing with Mrs. Remarque," the protagonist looks askance at the title character's makeup:

"Over the years, Mrs. Remarque had troweled on layers of face powder and rouge in what Agnes saw as a hysterical attempt to remain young," he writes. "She slathered on her Royal Volcano lipstick, neither coloring within the lines of her lips nor avoiding her teeth."

In contrast, two other stories, "A Year of Muktuk" and "The Strength of His Ancestors," are dignified homages to Alaska's Native cultures.

The other stories are more difficult to categorize. "Sister Skagway" is a taut drama about a condemned nun set during Skagway's lawless gold rush. "Gabriel's Gift" is a brother's loving recollection of his twin, a hearty bon vivant who chose the unlikely career of becoming a Russian Orthodox priest in Kenai.

All the stories are engrossing and accessible, although the satirical tales are the liveliest.

Even when Miles is at his most pointed, he is never cynical. The mood of "Alaska Unsalted" is cautiously optimistic, with a thread of human decency and sympathy running through his tales.

Miles is not a household name, but most of these stories have been published previously in literary journals no small feat, given such publications' intensely competitive selection process.

The author's skill shows in his command of language, vivid scenes and revealing dialogue.

If there is any flaw to these stories, it is that some verge on the burlesque. But that certainly does not detract from them entertaining the reader.

"Alaska Unsalted" is a quick read and a slim volume, but its modest price tag makes it worth picking up.

More stories from Miles would be nice. He is on to something with his offbeat, likeable yarns.

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

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