Sunday, February 17, 2008

Quick Thoughts About Two "Up North" Books

I'm not even going to TRY to come up with a coherent thought, but somehow I can't leave these two books unreviewed. So here you go:

"Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" by John Hawkes

My university PoMo teacher included John Hawkes in his "required postmodern reading" list, so I picked up a few of his books...but at the time I didn't understand how he fit into the category; his writing was far too straightforward for my rough little mind to accept.

I can't speak for Hawkes' other books (yet), but I can certainly understand his pomo chops now. "Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" is partly a wild adventure story, but it is mainly a love-letter to language, in particular the telling of stories.

The book's characters often break into long, detailed, fascinating monologues about their adventures...but they don't do this to impart information or to soothe others...they do it to BLUDGEON their listeners. In this book, stories are weapons; they help to maintain the status quo. When two new characters meet each other for the first time, they attack each other with stories, and the loser is permanently scarred.

What's amazing about Hawkes is his ability to get this across in a subtle, ambiguous way, and to combine it with stories that are more gripping and unusual than you'd find in the best "boy's adventure" book. For that reason, "Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade" could be seen as a lot of different things (and that's also why, the first time I read it, I had no idea what the point was). But now I see it as an evil, uncomfortable, vicious tale about the passive ways that people abuse each other, presented through the metaphor of storytelling.

"Hunting with the Eskimos" by Harry Whitney

It's difficult to read an autobiography written by a man you don't like, and such is this book by Harry Whitney. He wasn't EVIL or anything, he was just a selfish, egocentric, dim-witted rich guy who decided on a whim that he'd like to kill musk ox, and then wrote a book about his year sponging off the Inuit.

His writing style is atrocious. The book is a long string of pseudo-facts that barely rise above the level of a point-form journal: somebody sees a walrus, everybody sets out to kill the walrus, the weather turns bad, they return home with only one walrus. It's all like that except when Whitney sees something beautiful, in which case he'll describe it to us as being "indescribable." Thanks, Harry.

What's more, Whitney spent the entire Arctic winter amongst the Inuit, who were forced to babysit him. What the Inuit got out of this exchange is never stated, though they did seem to like his biscuits.

Even before he got off the boat Whitney had begun to hurt himself. It seems like every week he was suffering some new injury and that some new part of his body was frozen, swollen, or both. He kept wandering off, getting stuck in storms, and coming home again with frozen feet, which the Inuit women would stick between their breasts and rub back to life.

Whenever they went hunting, Whitney insisted on getting his trophies. To hell with the fact that the Inuit needed to, like, EAT, Whitney would hold them off so that he could take the first shot, or so that they could find the musk ox with the biggest horns, and meanwhile the Inuit hunting dogs were getting slaughtered and the game was escaping. Whenever he did this the Inuit hunters would become, in Whitney's words, "sulky and disagreeable."

You understand why I didn't like him.

On the positive side, however, he provided many comical accounts of the Inuit "going problokto," which he described as a form of insanity that the "Highland Eskimos" were prone to. Right in the middle of cooking a meal or spearing a walrus, somebody or other would run screaming around the ice floes, tearing off their clothes. This happened more often even that Whitney's frequent injuries, and I suspect that the Inuit did this to amuse Whitney, or more likely to distract him while they stole his biscuits.

The book does manage to shed some light on Inuit culture, but moreso it exposes the strange mindset of the turn-of-the-century "professional sportsman," men who travelled the world in order to kill the biggest animals they could find, usually with the invaluable assistance of "sulky, disagreeable" natives, just so they could nail something to their wall and bludgeon their children with adventure stories.


scott said...

And people like good old Harry there wonder why people don't like are stronger than I for reading that one, I'd have chucked it in the bin.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Though there's something to be said for the "ugly American abroad" thing, I think Harry suffered from the general condition of being a rich, selfish, uneducated guy in 1908.

The only way I managed to finish it was by anticipating his next injury.