Thursday, May 19, 2022

It's true what they say about Nome: The first winter is hard on relationships

It's not often that you get to read a novel set in Alaska by an writer who almost died in an Alaska plane crash but now tours the U.S. performing his music and reading his poetry and prose. One more thing -- the novel was published in India. Even in our interconnected world, working with a publisher on the other side of the world comes with its own set of challenges.  

"Now Entering Alaska Time" by Ken Waldman recounts the adventures (and misadventures) of a poet and fiddler named Zan. Raised in The Lower 48, Zan travels to Alaska and immerses himself in the folk music scene. He totes his fiddle wherever he goes. He eventually decides to get his graduate degree in creative writing and then embarks on a Nome teaching job where he teaches online classes to students around the state, from the Arctic Circle to softer climes in small towns near Juneau.

The book sometimes reads like a travelogue, so much so that I had to keep a map of Alaska close at hand. As is the case with most U.S. writers schooled in the West, place is crucial. You could say the same thing about writers from the South or the Midwest. But for writers in the West (Alaska included), sometimes we're more concerned with the spaces between than the places themselves. You can assume that those spaces represent the gaping chasms people experience in their relationships. 

That's the thing about Waldman's novel. His characters come together and tear asunder with stunning frequency. About as often as the next plane to Nome. That's how humans get around in Alaska, mainly by plane. Each of these locales (Nome, Juneau, Anchorage, Fairbanks) have distinctive personalities, illuminating to someone like me who's never been to Alaska. But as a writer in Wyoming, I am familiar with the wide open spaces. As literature coordinator for 25 years with the Wyoming Arts Council, I brought in writers from all over to judge our fellowship competitions. More than one of them asked me if writers had to write about the state's landscapes, you know, the mountains, the high desert, cottonwoods, the incessant wind. No, I would say, but all of those are facts of life here, ones you can't ignore. Landscape is a character.

Waldman prose doesn't have to remind the reader that it is cold and dreary during Nome winters. When Zan lands at the Nome airport to start his job, he remembers "the story of the young woman who had originally beat him for the position, flown here, and then turned right around." Later, when he wanders into downtown's Anchor Bar, he chats over drinks with jaded city manager Press Atwater. He warns Zan that Nome's first winter is hard on relationships. Months later, when he and Melinda see Press at his usual perch at the bar, he says: "Say, you two are still talking and it's been, what, two or three months already." He laughs. What else could he do? 

The novel's second half focuses on the relationship between Zan and Melinda. What a wild ride it is. Waldman does a fine job delineating their personalities and the stresses that sabotage relationships. The author paints a more complete portrait of Zan because, well, the novel is based on his own Alaska experience. We sometimes wonder about Melinda's motives, especially as she strays later in the relationship. I won't go any deeper than that because it's a powder keg of a relationship and I don't want to spoil anything. 

Waldman and I met several decades ago at what was then called the AWP Conference. We've worked together several times since. He's on the road most of the time now that Covid is winding down (we hope). The book tells me the roots of the author's itinerant lifestyle. He's still roaming the wide open spaces. It's in his blood. 

"Now Entering Alaska Time" will be available for $18 USD at after June 1. Waldman has launched a book tour with Alaska dates in Skagway, Haines, Juneau, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, and Denali Park. After that, he's in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Texas. He performed at the first outdoor Anchorage Folk Festival this past weekend and returns June 5 for a folk festival fundraiser. 

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