Book on living off the grid falls flat

Author describes a year and a half spent living in the Fritz Creek Region

Posted: Sunday, September 05, 2004

Doug Fine earned a degree in creative writing from Stanford University in 1992. Then he filed stories from Burma and Uzbekistan to Rwanda and the Arctic for such publications as Outside magazine, U.S. News & World Report and Wired, worked with Jim Lehrer and contributed to National Public Radio. Somewhere in there he visited Alaska five times. Finally, in March 1998, at age 28, he decided to move to the Last Frontier - to five acres of spruce with a "rickety, porous" cabin and a view of Kachemak Bay. "Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man" is his story of living in that cabin, with a visit to Barrow the following spring, wrestling with both his dog and the question of how to be a genuine sourdough.

The cataloging-in-publication data places this book in the "Fritz Creek Region" of Alaska. Seven times, the "Fritz Creek Region" is referred to. Where is this mysterious realm? Just outside Homer. And why, one wonders, is Homer not cataloged? Could it be because Homer has been marked as the territory of humorist Tom Bodett?

Bodett, the owner of that folksy voice that promises to leave the light on for us at Motel 6, is the author of "The End of the Road" and "The Last Decent Parking Place in North America" - and many more (also available on audio). With notable success, Bodett moved Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone to the Kenai Peninsula and removed the bachelor farmers and hot dish.

What Fine attempts to do with this book is homestead on a remote section of the comic country of Douglas Adams, the endlessly inventive author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe" and "Mostly Harmless." One of the requirements of homesteading is building your own cabin. Suffice to say, Fine resides in rented quarters.

Fine grew up within forty miles of Manhattan. For his year and a half experiment in the Fritz Creek Region, Fine sets himself the goal of living "in sync with his ecosystem," or becoming "indigenous." He breaks down the challenge of turning from Cheechako (inept newcomer, tenderfoot) to a Person Who Knows How to Do Things into three parts: heat, food and shelter. The heat section of the book, four chapters in length, is a prose silk worm cocoon. That is, an incredibly long thread is spun out of a tiny, lightweight whole. Readers are introduced to his dog, Sunny. They learn of his struggles with an inappropriate hat, jacket and boots, his warm relationship with JM (a girl who enjoys tickling and eventually stores her extra toothbrush in his cabin), and his difficulties with weather, jerky, and chainsaws. Readers are also introduced to his penchant for similes on the order of "trauma goes away like Milli Vanilli" and "as tightly wound as Ralph Nader discussing real wages."

The food section unravels another cocoon, including an incredibly long journey on a snowmobile across pack ice. From the details expended on this journey, one might think Fine has crossed Antarctica. The hat and boots return. In his conversation, Fine tries to achieve a "very Relaxed Tone" - to demonstrate his knowledge and competence - but what he achieves in prose is tediously arch.

Fine tries to place the blame for his lack of success in achieving Mountain Manhood on "the Jack Londons," declaring that London and his ilk never tell the truth about life in the Far North. These sloppy authors "lured us would-be indigenous to the polar regions unprepared for the mundane but crucial keys to survival," Fine protests. If Fine would read the complete Jack London, he'd discover plenty of the "niggling details" of "human misunderstandings" he yearns for - although it's true that London wrote more of greed than "engine troubles."

Fine paints himself into culturally inappropriate corners. The tool whalers use to remove slabs of muktuk from a bowhead is a flensing tool, not an ulu on a stick. In Inupiat culture, only women use ulus. The "flowered dress" one of the women wears is a kuspuk, a parka cover. A dress would hardly keep one warm on the shorefast ice.

The food section concludes with buying a gun in Anchorage and attempting to hunt moose - or snowshoe hares - or anything.

The shelter section describes helping a Peninsula neighbor re-build her house after a fire. Fine keeps up his leitmotif of people around him forming little o's with their mouths in their dismay at his ineptness. There are the usual scintillating conversations with Sunny. His bicycle is twisted into a pretzel and he manages to "pull nettles out of his skin."

Much of this - peppered with references to global warming, James Carville, Polysorbate 80 and Winona Rider - would amuse as radio commentary or standup comedy. But it falls flat on the page.

"Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man" consists of a few episodes, padded like a Mao jacket designed for cultivating cold rice paddies. With resident Alaskans used to real stories of real adventure, this book probably won't pan out. But, for armchair dreamers within forty miles of Manhattan, who knows? Reading about attempts to be manly often suffices for the masses. Few will recognize dangling constructions such as "Running to the door and opening it, not ten feet from his front doorstep...."

Fine now lives in Haines, where he is news director at KHNS radio.

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