Janet Dailey's "The Great Alone" may be the beach book to end all beach books; leave it on your towel and Hurricane Hazel wouldn't budge it. Buy two and use them to anchor the volleyball net. Three would stack neatly as a lifeguard stand.
Even diehard fans of the popular romance writer will have a hard time digesting this epic saga, a bloated 716 pages of leaden prose and overwrought images. It's enough to send you reaching for the Gas-X.
Dailey, who used to write a Harlequin romance every 16 days, is a prolific writer and perhaps best known as the author of the so-called Calder books: "This Calder Sky," "This Calder Range," "Stands a Calder Man," "Calder Born, Calder Bred." In "The Great Alone," which I presume is a sort of Calder of the Wild, she stretches her wings a bit. Unfortunately, all you can hear is a lot of flapping.
The action takes place in Alaska. The vast sweeping lay of the land is nothing compared with the vast sweeping silliness of Dailey's characters, whose greed and lust span 200 years and seven generations.
The year was 1745, and the ill-fated crew (what other kind is there?) of Russian traders land in the Aleutian Islands. Meet one of them, Luka Ivanovich Kharakov. "He'd slept with native women before, giving release to the hot urges inside him and some of the hatred, too. He knew no other kind of woman, except his mother, who was a dim memory of someone soft and warm. Soft. There was nothing soft in his life now except for furs -- the deep, shining darkness of sea otter pelts. That was the softness he sought now."
Fred the Furrier meets Winter Swan, a native woman with a son, Walks Straight. "The air stirred softly around him. It was a rare calm day, proving indeed that the wind was not a river." After the Russians massacre the natives, all with names like Weaver Woman, Little Spear and Many Whiskers, the two become lovers. Their union begets the beauteous Tasha.
Waiting for the plot to advance, we are subjected to pages and pages of Dailey's blubber. "Luka had always prided himself on his skill as a hunter. But there was a vast difference between hunting on land and hunting at sea. Land is solid. A man can walk on it. If he gets tired, he can lie down and rest."
If the reader gets tired, he cannot lie down and rest. He must go on. There are six generations and 199 years to go. There are also mewling seabirds, undulating motion, fog thick as curdled cream, heads swimming dizzily, fires within that had long lain dormant and throbbing sensations followed by vaguely hollow feelings.
*Tasha cohabits with Andrei, a Cossack. He has been married before, but his wife's body has long been flaccid. It was the climate back home. "Siberia," Dailey observes, "was a place where young women quickly became old."
When Andrei deflowers Tasha, he does so in vintage Daileyese:
"He plundered the riches of the soft body that no man had claimed before him, and reveled in its treasure." And, "She had made him feel like a virile two-year-old stud instead of an aging stallion."
From their union comes Zachar. Then come more glossy pelts, the mingling of native and Russian blood, the descendants (one of them the most famous whore in the state, Glory St. Clair) and a cast of cardboard characters lifted straight from the last mini-series.
Dailey once vowed to write a novel for every state of the union. I hope Alaska is the last.
Reading "The Great Alone" is like sleeping with a sea otter. It won't kill you, but I wouldn't recommend it.
The reviewer is a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post.