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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Yellowknife

Canada’s Northwest Territory has always seemed a little unreal to me and, consequently, my imagination allowed me to create my own version of a larger-than-life world there, one populated by some of the hardiest people on the face of the Earth who found their way that far north for lots of bizarre and personal reasons. You know what I mean – a world something like the stereotypical version of what life was like in the American West in the 1870’s when residents were either gunslingers or people who were afraid of gunslingers, with not much in between.

Then along comes a novel like Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife and I start to wonder if what I figured was a farfetched distortion of what life up that way was like might only be off by a matter of degree. Zipp’s fictional Yellowknife is filled with the kind of people I imagined would be there, people who have been drawn to the remoteness of the Canadian North for reasons of their own and who relish living in an environment that scares most of the rest of us to death.

Some come to Zipp’s Yellowknife looking for the easy money they imagine to be there. Others come because they are fed up with people and big city life and imagine that immersing themselves in Mother Nature will ease their spirit. A few come because they need to get lost for a time or because they want to reinvent themselves among people who don’t much care about where they started from. Some, of course, have lived there for generations and can only chuckle and shake their heads at what they observe.

Yellowknife, much like the early novels of John Irving, is not the kind of book that a reviewer can ruin for its readers by revealing a key spoiler or two. There is just too much going on, too many stories being told as the characters come and go, interacting with each other and recombining in ways that are sometimes simultaneously surreal and brutally realistic. Zipp’s characters embody the deepest secrets, dreams, fears and plain old weirdness that the rest of us manage to keep hidden from everyone but possibly ourselves.

There’s a dog-food-loving, self-made private detective who calls himself Dan Diamond and who learned everything he knows about sleuthing from watching bad television. There’s the guy with a secret entrance cut into one of the walls of his home that opens directly into a mine tunnel from which he seems to illegally gather enough gold to support himself and his wife. There’s a government environmentalist so infatuated by mosquitoes that he allows them to feast on him during his field research and who discovers a snow white species of mosquito no one but him has ever seen. There’s the government-employed computer geek who can’t be fired because he’s so good at hacking into the system and erasing all records of his dismissal, and who just might have saved the world with the Y2K-solution virus he unleashed in late 1999. And that’s just the short list.

My favorite sections of the book, though, involve places as much as characters. Zipp’s description of the colony of misfits who live on the grounds of the town dump and mine it for the treasures they need to survive in the town’s warmer months is great fun. And the winter festival during which so many of the townspeople hope to turn a profit by selling something to their fellow citizens is a reminder that, despite it’s location, life in Yellowknife may not, deep down, be all that different from life in any small town. But best of all is when Zipp places his characters deep in the Artic wilderness and, ready or not, they are on their own and it is literally sink or swim.

Yellowknife is one heck of a ride and I disembarked still not quite sure what was exaggerated truth and what was pure fantasy. But maybe that’s the point. For readers like me, who have never seen the Northwest Territory, the mystery surrounding it remains intact, and that’s what just might get me up there one of these days.

Rated at: 4.0
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