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Beating the drum, dully

Novel too do-gooder for its own good



I’ve recently begun to doubt the efficacy of peace rallies.

As gatherings for like-minded people, they succeed, and it’s true that many important statements are often made. However, as instruments for social and political change they seem to accomplish very little, and probably nothing. I blame the steel drums invariably present at almost every rally I’ve ever attended. The drums set a tone—an annoying, bally-hoo chant that pretty much sends a please-go-back-to-your-own-ship sort of message to anyone who might possibly be of a different persuasion. How can you enact political change if you’re always preaching to the same choir?

The same goes for fiction. Why alienate the very readers you’re trying to convince by announcing your righteousness? The best muckraking novels have shared with Upton Sinclair a blunt, specific and visceral prose. So gut-wrenching (literally) was The Jungle that Teddy Roosevelt reportedly threw his breakfast sausage out the window.

That’s political change.

Correcting the Landscape by Marjorie Kowalski Cole is this year’s winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a prize engendered by Barbara Kingsolver to honor socially and politically engaged fiction. The book’s Gus Traynor, editor of the Fairbanks Mercury, a small weekly newspaper in Fairbanks, Alaska, comes up against big-business interests threatening the Alaskan wilderness he and so many others in Fairbanks cherish.

In some ways, Correcting the Landscape is a compelling read, especially for Missoulians. Like many here, Gus represents an active and reflective citizen of a small city set in a beautiful surrounding. He’s concerned about Fairbanks’s economy, its growth, its virtues and its hypocrisies.

In other ways, though, the novel, as a tool of social and political change, lingers far too long in the steel drum danger zone, making it more off-putting than effective. Many of Gus’ ostensible impulses read like carefully manufactured choreography from the author; many of the characters are two-dimensional cut-outs of folks too clearly representing the good side or the bad side.

It all begins when a widowed physician comes home on a September afternoon to find the spruce and birch forest that separated her land from the highway bulldozed to the ground. The good doctor shrieks: “What happened to the trees?”

What happened to the trees is this: Tad Suliman, the self-serving developer who bankrolls Gus’ paper (a big problem for our protagonist), cleared the forest to sell the timber to a construction company that plans to build up the land as a tourist camp. Suliman’s liquidating because Shelley Suliman, his soon-to-be-ex-wife and the prior year’s Realtor of the Year in Fairbanks, stands to get half of everything in the divorce.

“‘Yeah, it’s going to be great,’ [Tad] said. ‘They’re putting in a tourist camp. Besides,’ he added, ‘I like to get out with a Cat when I’m upset. Shove some dirt around. Shelley’s had me plenty upset lately.’”

While Suliman’s character may surprise some readers at the novel’s end, few readers who aren’t predisposed to the author’s political message will get to that ending. They’ll be too busy wondering—perhaps with justification—which “Doonesbury” character Suliman is supposed to resemble.

Gus, a humble hero, wonders what’s to become of the town he’s come to love. The citizens of Fairbanks picket a dirty book and a Nordstrom closing. Gus eats at a restaurant called the Conscious Palate where “The political sympathies in evidence…surrounded me with an illusion that the food was safer, less clogged with traditional American vices. It’s all a matter of accessories, isn’t it, but the food was good at the Palate. Well prepared.” Sure, he’s willing to admit to the illusion, but he’s also willing to subscribe to the symbolic, not actual, change the illusion suggests. He’s eating accessories.

While subscriptions to the Mercury plummet (Gus increasingly relies on subscriptions to ease his reliance on finicky advertisers) and Gus contemplates bankruptcy, he falls in love with a journalism student working in his office, an Alaska native who implicitly challenges him on the compromising half-steps he takes to preserve the paper. In Gayle, a single mother working toward her degree, Gus sees a part of the state he’s never really seen before, provoking questions about the town’s future and identity. Though these are among the most provocative questions in the novel, they too are ultimately hampered by overheated political rhetoric. When he shows a downtown statue supposedly depicting Alaska’s anonymous first family to Felix, a young Irish poet temporarily writing for the Mercury, Gus points out:

“‘This Family, this statue, it’s just stupid. Because they represent no one, in particular, except maybe the stone and cement industry.’

‘But when there is a history, a very particular history, and public art ignores it,’ said Felix, ‘that’s a political statement, isn’t it?’

‘You’re going to fit right in at the Conscious Palate,’” Gus replies.

At its best, Correcting the Landscape represents an honest and thoughtful look at a community’s changes and one man’s struggle to influence that change. At its worst, Cole’s novel is weighed down by its cause. These are characters modeled to represent certain kinds of players in a certain kind of social and political game. The result is a thin argument and an even thinner story.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole will read from and sign copies of Correcting the Landscape at Fact & Fiction Saturday, Feb. 4, at 1:30 PM.

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