Any man who is not frightened by his first glimpse of Alaska is either a fool or a liar, or so Robert F. Jones asserts in his prickly novel about that enormous state and the animals, demons and hell-raisers who populate it.
The book may offend the tenderhearted and the squeamish, for not since Hemingway's "Green Hills of Africa" have so many wild animals been dispatched in such excruciating detail. Yet the details of the bloody slaughter only lend credence to this story of two World War II army buddies, Sam Healey and Jack Slade, who flew the "Hump" together in the China-Burma-India theater and later turned to bush-flying in Alaska when the war ended. Healey soon betrays Slade and flees to the "outside." Years later he returns, only to doublecross Slade once again. Slade, at the age of 60, finally exacts his revenge in a suitably wild and vivid climax.
Jones is an interesting writer with uncommon descriptive powers, which he uses to make you feel the cold and taste the bear steaks and smell the fearsome carcajou. He also knows the names of things and how they work, whether they be traps or guns or planes or a Girl Scout compass, apparently the best kind of compass you can have in the wild.
Jones' obvious and abiding love for Alaska is something he seems to share with his bandylegged hero Slade, a native of Vermont, who dotes on solitude and taking care of himself in hard country. In the period between the time that Healey betrays him, disappears, and then reappears again, Slade homesteads a claim on the Alguiak River, takes a wife, and scratches out a living of sorts.
Slade's dream has been to develop a shooting lodge, but he has never had the money to do so until Healey returns and offers to obtain the financing. But the money comes from an oil company that has cast covetous eyes on Slade's holding. Slade makes his pact with the devil and, of course, dooms himself and his beloved wilderness.
It is inevitable, I suppose, for Jones to be compared with Jack London. But he writes far better than London (as who does not?) and seems closer in attitude, if not in style, to the late Robert Ruark, another notable shooter.
In an otherwise extremely well-written book, Jones' occasional and uncertain ventures into fantasy are perhaps not as charming as he may have wished. But since Alaska seems to have everything else, it might as well have a shaman or two. But still, the fantasy seems somewhat misplaced in this otherwise steel-hard tale.
One of the novel's best realized characters is Slade's wife, Josey, who shares his love for the hard country as well as distrust of the outside. One passage, in which they build a cabin, serves as well as any other to demonstrate Jones' expository skills:
"We notched the logs for the end walls and side walls, framing in the door and the two south-facing windows with finished lumber I'd brought up from Gurry Bay. For now, the door was the hide of Josey's bear and the windows tacked Plexiglas until we could get real glass ten courses high, we roofed them with pole timber and shingled them Tlingit fashion with flattened slabs of spruce bark."
In the end Slade must lose his glacier and his hard country to his false friend, the rapacious oil companies and a bumbling government. It is an ending both fitting and inexorable. There aren't too many places left for the Slades of this world. He toys with the idea of going to New Guinea, but decides that he's too old. Instead, he chooses sweet revenge.
Jones has written an interesting, cautionary and informative tale. And the next time I venture out into the hills, I plan to take along a Girl Scout compass.