The Spring & Summer 2008 issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review is a heavy one; physically, mentally, and emotionally. At 246 pages it's got some thickness, but the real weight comes from the cerebral, emotionally charged pieces found within.
AQR is put out biannually by the University of Alaska Anchorage, and one of the founding editors--Ronald Spatz--is still at the helm. This particular issue is dedicated to writer Grace Paley, a long-time contributing editor, who passed away in 2007. It also contains a 52 poet 25th Anniversary Poetry feature edited by Jane Hirshfield.
A good amount of the pieces in the prose half deal with death, in the literal and figurative sense. And while it may not always be the focus of a piece, its presence is undoubtedly there casting its long shadow. In Matt Bondurant's short story "Birthmark," for instance, we are introduced to the death early when the narrator, a young girl, describes the convict rodeo and her mother's opposition to her attending: "The convict rodeo is all guys who are locked up and my dad says they make the best cowboys and there isn't anything wrong with watching a good rodeo. I don't blame him for thinking so. My dad didn't know that we'd see a convict get stabbed through the heart as he lay in the mud."
In giving away the climactic event at the outset, Bondurant avoids falling into mere shock value, allowing himself and the reader to focus more on the weight of the situation. He also crafts a believable junior high school girl in the story's narrator, Katy. Through her sometimes meandering thoughts, the reader is able to pick up important details giving a sense of place and status.
The four other fiction pieces deal with similarly emotionally charged subject matter, some of which include the seduction and violation of a young girl, the story of an elderly Chinese woman who casts the lone dissenting vote in a local election, which has dire consequences, and a young boy's coping with homosexuality in a repressive environment. The other stories are Kristin Allio's "The Other Woman," Celeste Ng's "B & B," Shao Wang's "One Voted No" and Michael Hawley's "Diptych."
Following the fiction section there are three nonfiction pieces, beginning with Deborah A. Lott's "Looking for an Angle," which beautifully describe the death of the narrator's uncle and her struggle to cope with it amidst her adamant faithlessness which doesn't allow her the comfort of an afterlife. After Lott's essay comes a welcome relief from the draining reads thus far with Dustin Beall Smith's "No Feeling of Falling."
Smith's essay chronicles his journey as a young and adventures college dropout during the late 1950s who forays into the early world of sport skydiving. After leaving college only nine weeks into the semester, the young Smith returned home to live his idealized life as an existentialist rebel in the basement of his parents' house. His parents, a successful commercial artist father and artist/homemaker mother, provided a life far-removed from the idllyic Beat existence he aspired to. The elder Smith makes a point to stress this on numerous occasions.
The piece is more than mere humor, however, as Smith not only stresses his own positive background, but the danger of gentrification and brushing over the poverty of rural America: "I'd come to view devastated towns like Orange through rose-colored glasses -- oh, glorious, rootless America! Since I'd never had to live for any length of time in such a place, I was free to admire decay and ignore the misery of the working poor and unemployed. Beneath my romantic view of poverty lay a thinly disguised arrogance born of privilege." While on the surface, the story may seem cliché, it's handled with such finesse and tact that it never feels anything less than genuine.
The final essay, Leigh Morgan Owens' "The Tricky Thing About Endings," is the most adventurous of the prose pieces in terms of style. In her first appearance in a national literary journal, Owen tells the story of her mother's battle with cancer and her own battle against the battle. The essay is moving, without question, and there are occasional paragraphs of long lists; a form is reproduced in text form, "Name. Blank. Date. Blank..." and another is a long of her daily routine in caring for her mother. There's no mistaking intent, as they are as stylistic jarring as the subject matter. The essay has a lot of page breaks marking scene changes that give the piece a similarly disjointed, jarring feel.