Randles throws readers in deep end of Alaska culture

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003

"The Long Dark: An Alaska Winter's Tale" by Slim Randles (McRoy & Blackburn, paperback, 142 pages, $12)

Slim Randles can set one heck of a scene.

In the first six paragraphs of his novel "The Long Dark," we find ourselves in fall, on the taiga, admiring a stack of firewood. Randles doesn't bother to define or describe the loons in the scene or the taiga, the velvet on moose antlers, the sticklebacks or muskeg. He just sinks you in there, and hopes you'll be willing to swim.

The receptive reader is very willing to follow his lead, as Randles discusses such Alaska topics as the rarity of strawberries, the sorcery of letters from distant places, the hidden meaning of invitations to ice fishing, and other engrossing topics.

The beauty and treachery of swamps, the dangers of flying, pilots who talk to themselves and alternate playing Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" with "Jinny Git Around" on the harmonica, one-eyed sled dogs with names like Crabmeat ("C.M." for short), and roadhouses where dogs sleep "next to the oil heater in accordance with an elaborate pecking order" are part of the mix. Stir in a bartender, Hemingway Jones, who is really a writer and regularly asks his Athabascan customers to read his sample chapters, a son who considers jet planes superior to Cessna 185s, and the village's habit of tourist-baiting with grisly grizzly stories, and you get the gist.

A quiet undercurrent of humor keeps the reader contentedly turning pages, looking forward to the next plot development.

Roadhouse owner Frank Granger's opinion of cheechakos who think it will be romantic to live in the Bush is a classic: "Now when they go out to these cabins, they think it's an adventure going to the outhouse. They love the feeling of freedom when they go down to the creek to haul water. They feel biblical when they trim the wicks on the kerosene lamps."

"The Long Dark" is a good book to read at this time of year because it's full of cases of cabin fever, nightmares of plane crashes, sneaky love stories, disguises, discoveries and the different ways in which men and women love the backcountry. Randles moves easily between gripping scenes of near-death experiences to relaxed, fireside exchanges of correspondence.

The fictional town in which Randles places his story, Kahiltna, can't be found on any maps, but is not unlike Talkeetna. The intertwined lives of the main characters reveal how life in a small town comforts as well as intrudes on privacy.

Randles portrays Kahiltna as a geographical site, like Sitka or Nenana, where a combination of resources drew prehistoric man and continues to draw people. Resident Harry Pete, a full-blooded Indian whose family goes back six generations there, says, "Nobody knows for sure when man first settled here where the rivers come together. It is a natural den-up place for man. Here is his transportation, his timber, his water, his hunting grounds. This is a village where a person can be from. Where a person can live. ... A village is a family, and you are a part of that family whether you like it or not."

"The Long Dark" is the second book by Randles that the Ester, Alaska-based firm McRoy & Blackburn has published. The first title was "Raven's Prey," the tale of four men murdered at a remote camp in the Talkeetna Mountains and the man who decides to track the killer. Titles from other publishers include "Hell, I Was There! The Life Story of Elmer Keith" and "Hot Biscuits."

Randles is a longtime Alaska journalist, guide and outdoorsman. He may not have the name recognition of John Haines or Robert B. Parker, or the poetic grace of Annie E. Proulx, but he has a good hand with a yarn and is worth a read.

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