Ring of Fire and Other Stories
By Tanyo Ravicz
Bellowing Ark Press
Many readers overlook short fiction to their loss. Contemporary short story markets are so competitive that writers have to get darn good to see their names in print.
Three recent Alaskana story collections show real promise even though their authors are not well known.
Tanyo Ravicz lived in Fairbanks and now divides his time between Kodiak and California. "Ring of Fire and Other Stories," his first book, remains squarely Alaskan in setting and inspiration. His writing has attracted praise from the likes of Thomas Keneally, author of "Schindler's List."
Ravicz's characters and perhaps the author himself are like the protagonist of the story "American Eagle," killing time fishing at a Kodiak beach.
"Somewhere along the way, Alaska became the place where Damon Briely was already buried. There was too much of himself he had lost here, too much of himself he had won."
Ravicz writes of restless wanderers upon the land, the complexities between the sexes and the outcomes of unorthodox decisions.
In a few places, his sentences spin out of control, but for the most part his words do exactly what he intends. His prose can be lyrical, staccato or salty. It excels at suggesting conflicts swirling just below the surface, such as near the beginning of "Goodbye, Anchortown," when the first-person narrator tells us:
"On the night I didn't go home to Julie, I slept off some drinks on a friend's floor. The next morning I woke just inches from the cat's litter box. It was a haunting view."
The title piece is more a novella than a short story, and it is a tour de force. With its combination of subtle emotions and raw action, it could make a good movie.
Hunting guide and lodge owner Hank Waters lands his career's biggest gig. He hosts Prince Tariq, scion of a fictional Arabian Gulf oil sheikdom, for a trophy bear hunt. For security, the guests wire the isolated place with high-tech equipment, bring in an entourage of aides and guards, and insist Waters cut his staff to three. Waters and Tariq are both accustomed to doing things their own way. But weather limits the group's options. Too many bored men with too many guns poison the mood. The tension ratchets higher and higher, until the author delivers a series of explosive surprises.
Cardinal Sin: Tales of Alaska, War, and More
By Scott Casper
$29.45 (hardcover); $16.95 (softcover)
"Cardinal Sin: Tales of Alaska, War, and More," by Fairbanksan Scott Casper, is wider is far different in mood. It includes memoirs as well as fiction and, incidentally, has nothing to do with the book's cover. He previously published a novel, titled "Marshaling the Rails," and several pieces from the current collection as magazine articles.
Casper writes not only of Alaska, but also of his youth in Utah and, in a couple pieces, touches on experiences during the Vietnam War.
The Utah pieces are nostalgic, coming-of-age stories about young boys running wild and horny teens with shiny low-rider cars.
Casper describes characters (including himself) experiencing dreadful surprises such as a child confronting his father's crippling injury or a peaceful scholar assaulted by nudists that play out in ways unexpected, bizarre or even humorous.
His Alaska pieces feature men out of their depth, often literally. For example, in his recollection "Misadventures on the Fortymile," he describes how a relaxed float trip turned into a several-day ordeal of hypothermia and bushwacking: "Our efforts were in vain. We hit a boulder with stunning force; the boat spun sideways, tilted and dumped us in the water."
He paints quirky villains and heroes. Reflecting on the misadventures of an utterly amoral colleague at a Fairbanks car dealership, he rhetorically asks, " (H)ow many people do you know who carry a .25 caliber automatic pistol in their crotch?"
Casper covers some truly horrific subject matter, sort of like Quentin-Tarantino-meets-Jack-London. This can be jarring alongside his light tone. The discordant note is most apparent in "Mayhem at Minchumina," a blood-soaked romp involving extra-judicial use of an ulu. It has marvelous characters and plotting, but the reader comes away uncomfortable with the way the author and his characters skirt the darkest parts of the story.
A few flawed passages slipped through the final edit. Glitches such as saying a woman is 52 years old but has been married 40 years are annoying, but rare. Despite the rough patches, most of "Cardinal Sins" is a page-turning roller coaster of a book, and Casper shows a knack for spinning yarns.
Beyond Solitude: A Cache of Alaska Tales
By Jo Massey
"Beyond Solitude" is longer and more diverse in mood.
Author Jo Massey spent 14 years in Alaska and now resides in Oregon. Her stories won writing awards in Wyoming, but she returns to Alaska for inspiration and as the perfect setting to explore her theme.
"The fictional characters that people this book have each experienced a very personal form of solitude as they confront the challenges of isolation, both physical and emotional," she writes in her introduction.
Her settings range from upper-class condominiums to the wilds of Denali, but many of her stories interlock in an imaginary small town, where imported misfits and seekers rub shoulders with Sourdoughs and Natives. Her descriptions of Alaska are authentic, from the grandeur of watching sunrise color Denali's summit to slogging through muskegs. Her heroes and antiheroes are humble folk, doing their best to cope with life's exigencies.
Massey gravitates toward abused women and star-crossed romance, but "Beyond Solitude" is definitely not chick-lit. She can write from a man's point of view, use drama and comedy, and tackles grisly scenes with gusto.
Her ability to handle a range of material leads to some wonderful scenes, such as when a drunk tries to explain that he's just witnessed a bizarrely botched suicide attempt:
"'Hey! Hey! Hey!' he said, using the words like a stiff finger poking at (bartender) Dan's brain.
"'Dammit, Charlie, I already told you I can't sell you any more booze tonight. Go home and sober up.'
"'But you don't understand. I seen something's maybe very, very important,' he said, flinging his arms wide dramatically, nearly falling over with the abrupt movement."
Massey is equally adept at lyrical descriptions of wilderness, taut standoffs and domestic dramas. Her writing shows a real depth of understanding for the human condition. In all these books, some stories work better than others, but all three writers are skilled at portraying memorable characters and telling stories that surprise and satisfy.
Shana Loshbaugh is a former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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