Review: “Alaska Quarterly Review” Fall & Winter 2010 Issue Fiction

by Rio Liang

Their spring/summer issue may already be out, but take these last few weeks of winter to read the great fiction offerings in the fall/winter 2010 issue of “Alaska Quarterly Review.”

Linda LeGarde Grover’s “Bingo Night.” An old couple skips out on Saturday Night Fever bingo at the reservation school in order to get home before night falls. But Earl and Alice get lost on the way and find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere. In the dark of night, it’s a precarious situation for a helpless old couple to be in; a great sense of fear pervades the story, as both Earl and Alice–both raised Catholic–conjure up monsters of Native American mythology throughout the ordeal. To further add to the mood, past and present get entangled, and dreams intertwine with reality. During an interlude, we find out through Beryl (a friend of Alice’s) that Earl and Alice never had children, which sets up the great irony that no concerned son or daughter will go looking for the couple. But the story ends happily, with memegawens, or benevolent “little people,” coming to to the seemingly dying couple’s side; also, Beryl’s nephew Bud comes to their rescue–a nice substitute for the “children” Earl and Alice could never have.

Scott Bear Don’t Walk’s “Last Stand.” We’re in the early ’90s, and it’s our narrator’s first day as an extra on the set of a film about Custer’s Last Stand. A “newly self-conscious Native American” college student, it had taken some classes on his culture for him to “re-acquire” his identity. It takes a reenactment of of the Custer fight for him to feel authentically Indian; in fact, the director has to “direct” the extras to “STOP SMILING” and “Remember” the sufferings their ancestors had gone through. A great first publication for Mr. Bear Don’t Walk; delightfully funny with tinges of sadness. A high recommend from me.

Mark Wisniewski’s “Schnecks.” A funny, rambling confession by a Wisconsin state’s fair wiener stand owner. She divulges to a priest her dubious dealings with child laborers and minors (to whom she and her husband sell “near-beers,” charging them extra for the illusion of getting drunk). In particular she feels guilty about having encouraged her niece “Joan” to be flirty for the sake of making a profit, which led to her getting impregnated (maybe) by a man-with-a-monkey. The story slues to a funny ramble about art (“if you do happen to be that kind of a dreamer, I’m fairly sure you’d go someplace extra warm“), as “Joan” goes off to Canada to escape and be an artist. The connection with the “schnecks” of the title? The monkey of the guy who impregnated “Joan” had been stealing schnecks from the concession stand. Very wild, all-over-the-lot fun.

Bojan Louis’s “As Meaningless as the Origin.” Another noteworthy first publication by an up and coming writer. Lucas and our narrator are laborers and fellow poets in Flagstaff who are soon to be going their separate ways. Though the former is Canadian and the latter Navajo, they form a simpatico based on their jaded outlook on life (“Our work was as meaningless as the origin of any of the material used in constructing the place,” the narrator notes at one point). A chance encounter at a strip club with a self-professed Neo-Nazi, Conroy, brings to a boil undercurrents of racism. The story ends with a fitting directive from Lucas:  “We should go. We should go someplace else.” Mr. Louis here paints an authentic portrait of numbness and inquietude. Definitely check this one out.

Jenny Shank’s “Moonlight, Starlight, Boogie Won’t Be Out Tonight.” Second grader Davonya Williams feels a certain sense of power from being picked as the “Boogie” in her gym class game of tag. She is the perfect “It,” being the fastest in her class. But one day, the gym teacher picks the second fastest, Katie, a blonde girl whom Davonya, black and powerless, can only truly best in this game of tag (Davonya views the gym teacher’s picking Katie as the Boogie as “an invitation to a monster”). The game gets out of hand (Davonya feels the “terror of the chased”), and the two get into a chase that extends beyond the gym and into the dangerous neighborhood outside the school walls. The story flashes forward to decades later, when as a college student, Davonya is now a competitive runner, and she understands that “in the modern world…self-preservation depended on how quickly you could run.” An interesting examination of a temporary handover of power to the powerless.

Richard N. Bentley’s “Chrysanthemums.” Priscilla brings chrysanthemums for her deceased mother Betsy’s grave in Chicago’s Rosemont Cemetery. But she knows the flowers will be stolen and sold, probably to another mother elsewhere rocking herself to sleep while looking at them; a sleep unlike the slumber of Priscilla’s mother, who had once been a Democratic activist in a Republican town. Interesting short short; I’m interested to hear from the reader what s/he thinks of this story.

Aurelie Sheehan’s “Orange Blossoms.” Eliza Solgang is sixteen, a victim of rape, and mother of a baby she has yet to name. She comes from a Christian family, with an assistant deacon for a father; but instead of comforting her, the family has abandoned her. To her father, Eliza’s gang rape is a consequence of what he perceives as a downward spiral she’d been in; to save face, they ask Eliza to stay away from sight. In an interesting juxtaposition, while in hospital after the rape, she watches by chance a documentary on raped women in Darfur who were cast out by their families for bearing janjaweed children. Like these women, Eliza must try to survive with baby on her own, a sad existence. But an encounter with a refugee advertising an International Women’s Festival celebration nearby helps Eliza move on, to no longer languish; she finally accepts her situation and provides her baby with a name: Jessica. A beautifully told and heartbreaking story.

Victoria Patterson’s “Nobody’s Business.” A real beaut, this one is. High schooler Stan’s mother Vanessa is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Just a teenager, he is overcome with sadness by the whole situation and doesn’t fully understand his feelings. Enter Nancy, a co-worker of his, whose family she had to leave behind in Mexico. They bond over the similar losses they feel:  The loss of people who are both still there but no longer there (Stan’s mother who is dying; Nancy’s family that is so far away). Ms Patterson does a great job of vividly painting her characters. Nancy is perfectly rendered down to her controlled speech and mascara; Vanessa is well-done as a no-nonsense mother; and Stan’s alienation and deep sadness is thoroughly believable. Definitely one to read and reread.

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