'Happy Hour: A novel of 1970s Alaska,' by Don G. Porter
By Don G. Porter
Published by McRoy & Blackburn
"Happy Hour" is a good-time entertainment set in urban Alaska. The brisk, brief novel is the second in a new series by Don Porter.
The cover gives the impression that the story is a mystery. But it is more a new twist on an old-fashioned shoot-'em-up action tale, set in the recent Wild West of Anchorage and Fairbanks in the 1970s.
Narrator Alex Price bush pilot, crack shot and part-time detective finds himself in the center of a showdown between mafia thugs and a very loose posse of Fourth Avenue barkeepers. Price finds his sleuthing skills much in demand, but the story is more of a what-are-they-gonna-do-next than a whodunit.
The story begins with Price getting a message that his best friend and former college roommate, the dapper and ambitious Renaldo, is desperate for his help.
"He wouldn't have called me unless he had a serious problem," Price tells readers. "The kinds of problems that Renaldo called me for were apt to get pretty physical, and likely as not would involve the .357 magnum revolver that I carry in my flight bag."
Price is a likeable protagonist. He is a gentleman, in the rough-hewn frontier mode, with an idealist's sense of justice and a pragmatist's grasp of unofficial ways to get it. He displays a fondness for the good life of fine aircraft, beautiful women and gourmet restaurants, but never lets that get in the way of loyalty to friends and the allure of a good fight.
Renaldo has purchased a bar in one of Anchorage's seedier neighborhoods for what seemed like a steal at the time. But soon he learns the nature of the real steal when a mafia bagman stops by to collect protection money from the new owner. Renaldo declines the offer rather forcefully, then calls on Price for reinforcement.
As the situation escalates, author Porter introduces Jossef, a Ukrainian mobster whose checkered past has led him from the streets of Odessa to Fairbanks, where he hopes to establish himself as the don of Alaska. The author spends the rest of the book switching between the viewpoints of Alex and Jossef. He narrates his villain's life with such relish that we almost sympathize with the bastard.
What follows is a darkly comic battle between Jossef and his henchmen, on the one side, and, on the other, Price and the barkeeps. Neither side really understands who the enemy is, adding misunderstandings to the mayhem. They chase each other and phantom foes from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back.
Serendipity and coincidence play as much of a role as skill in the outcome. Interestingly, these devices play out as plausible in the small population of Alaska, where they would seem contrived if the tale were set in a larger metropolis.
The author shows his local knowledge by weaving in realistic references to landmarks (natural and unnatural) and even to real people such as the flying Wilbur family of Anchorage. His descriptions of flying a small plane across the landscape show deep affection for the great land, such as this description of crossing the mountains:
"Looking down at those mountains is like looking down at a gravel pile, but the rocks are ten thousand feet tall with nearly vertical walls disappearing into black canyons thousands of feet deep," he writes.
"When you bust out of the Alaska Range in the dark and see Anchorage spread out on the other side of the Knik Arm, it looks like a blanket of stars."
With Porter's obvious fondness for the setting, his little mistakes, such as misspelling the name of famed landscape painter Sydney Laurence, are annoying. More serious are the anachronisms, such as referring to Anchorage's population as a quarter million, when really it was more like a sixth of a million at the supposed time of the tale.
Perhaps most glaring is his use of Russian mafia as his heavies. Although such groups are, alas, active on the world stage (including Alaska) during our own time, to place a large group of them at center stage during the Cold War seems implausible. During a decade when Brezhnev was invading Afghanistan, it stretches even a fantastic plot to imagine heavily armed, scantily documented Russians brandishing Kalashnikovs and shooting up Alaska towns without attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies.
But "Happy Hour" is entertainment, not history. If the characters sometimes edge toward stereotypes, they still snap with orneriness and clever comebacks. If the plot is unrealistic, it echoes modern action films.
For all its naughty talk, the book is never pornographic. And, more notably, for all its ferocious gunplay, it is remarkably free of bloodshed. Instead of piling up corpses, Price and the opposition use up a lot of bullets and destroy windows, doors, several vehicles and one house good clean fun by Hollywood standards.
By Alaska standards, "Happy Hours" is great, guilty fun. Porter plans to create a series of Price's adventures, and more will be welcome. Like a night on the town in the "big" city, you might not want to explain "Happy Hour" to your mother, but reading it will provide hours of enjoyable escapism.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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