Joe McGinniss

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Chip Brown

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McGinniss went north in November 1977 to see what sort of people were drawn to Alaska's extreme cold and isolated life where the land was "unchanged by the presence of man" and to explore the effects wrought by the boom economy. He suspected "the irresistible forces of big business, modern technology, and greed" were engulfing the wilderness, the ancient ways of the Alaska natives and the sense of limitlessness and possibility that lie at the heart of the frontier spirit. His purpose, as he set out, was to record "the last days of the last frontier."

To this grandiose assignment, McGinniss brought his formidable reportorial talents and his gliding, seductive writing style. Unfortunately [Going to Extremes] … is little more than a travelogue of impressions, interviews and vignettes with some of the pleasures of the genre but many of its limitations. Having never been to Alaska before, McGinniss knocked around the state for nearly two years as an unabashed "cheechako"—the slightly disparaging Alaskan term for unseasoned newcomer. On occasion he turns the pose of impressionable ingenue to his favor with flashes of humor….

His astute eye and ear for dialogue serve him well—most impressively in a chapter about a native woman named Olive Cook who is caught between the culture of her village in western Alaska and her new urban life in Anchorage and later in Washington D.C.… Olive Cook curses the traditional religious ceremony in the village at Christmastime because it interferes with Christmas from Disneyland on the tube. "You can't even watch real Christmas on TV!" she cries, and in that line, McGinness has captured all of the confusion, ambivalence and despair that haunt Alaska natives trying to live two lives at once.

Absorbing as some of the chapters are, McGinniss fails to tie them together with anything other than the thread of his travels and thus leaves Going to Extremes without much narrative momentum. The author also seems reluctant to sum up, to examine and to develop some of the themes latent in his material. Perhaps he was constrained by his pose as a cheerful cheechako.

Whatever, Going to Extremes will probably suffer in the shadow of [John McPhee's] Coming into the Country. Where McGinniss glanced off a dozen towns, McPhee rooted into one and discerned the power of the land that makes it unthinkable to many Alaskans to live anywhere else.

Yet there is a hint in the last and most sustained chapter—about a wilderness journey into the Brooks Range—that McGinness has come to sense the spell of Alaska. He moves beyond his journalism of snapshots, postcards and grab-bag impressions, impelled to convey the "mystical" feeling that overtook his party in a mountain basin where no person had ever been. (pp. 5, 9)

Chip Brown, "The Call of the Wild," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 14, 1980, pp. 5, 9.

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