Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade
Sunny Deauville is lost in another dream of her father, Uncle Jake, as this novel opens; she is searching the Alaskan wilderness for the man she calls a “phantasm” of dreams. Such dreams, however, are only one of three narrative elements in this novel, for they are deftly woven together with Sunny’s account of Jake’s privileged life in turn-of-the-century Connecticut and picaresque existence in Alaska in the 1930’s, and enmeshed in Sunny’s own present-time (1964) experiences as owner/operator of the Alaska-Yukon Gamelands, a trailer-park bordello outside Juneau.
Jake left Connecticut when the market crashed in 1929 and took his reluctant wife and Sunny to Juneau in pursuit of his frontier dreams. This was only the first of many times he would mortgage the love of family and friends for a grand exploit. In Juneau, he became partners with Frank Morley and Frank’s Indian helper, Sitka Charlie, and together they lived the truth of what Mark Twain called “stretchers.”
Only a tall man can live a tall tale, and Jake hustled his six-foot-six-inch frame all over southern Alaska in search of adventure and wealth. Whether buying blue fox farms on desolate islands, rescuing terrified hunters from Alaska’s largest brown bear, or climbing sheer cliffs to discover that supposedly rich copper deposits were only patches of moss, Jake saw life in the light of his own romantic notions.
Dominated by these memories, Sunny is nevertheless ambivalent toward Alaska and her past. Her romance is of a different order than Jake’s, her skin trade not in the nature of hides nailed on cabin walls. She discovered very young that “woman, not Alaska, is the last frontier,” and the Gamelands is her homestead.
John Hawkes, in this his tenth novel, skillfully creates a multifaceted text of imagination and wit, a postmodern fiction that nevertheless lies solidly in the American frontier tradition. Hawkes is one of America’s best writers, and his Alaskan dreamscape will captivate many readers.