[Random House; 2022]
There’s an image of Alaska in popular literature that’s muscular and testosterone-soaked. Take James A. Michener’s Alaska, a beefy historical saga about the northern frontier. Or there’s Into the Wild, the true story of a disillusioned young man who sets out to find himself in an abandoned bus north of Denali National Park. And who could forget that Jack London wrote many of his adventure stories while sifting for gold in Klondike? Pitch me a book set in Alaska, and I’m immediately thinking of days-old beards, chest-thumping survivalism, and “hunting game.” In other words, I’m bored.
But then there’s Rebecca Rukeyser’s The Seaplane on Final Approach, an Alaska novel that’s anything but boring. The novel trades the self-satisfied bravado of the white dude “adventurer” for the inner life of a very horny teenage girl, which makes it a breath of chilly fresh air. This, coupled with the book’s gorgeous and terrifying landscape, lends it the spellbinding quality of a bildungsroman let loose in the wilderness.
The protagonist Mira is eighteen and aimless, so her parents send her to spend a summer with her homesteading aunt in Alaska. There Mira meets her aunt’s stepson, Ed, a twentysomething fisherman whose raw sexuality is channeled through his shaggy hair and missing tooth. Mira is immediately overwhelmed by her attraction to him, and after her aunt sends her home under accusations of sluttiness, Mira resolves to come back to Kodiak the next summer and “just do it over.” And in just doing it over, she intends to find and marry Ed.
Mira secures a summer job at Lavender Island Wilderness Lodge, owned and operated by the middle-aged couple Maureen and Stu. Like Mira’s aunt, Maureen and Stu are homesteaders who are very pleased with themselves for being homesteaders, the kind of middle-class people bored enough by their privilege to seek adventure in some place like Alaska. Their Wilderness Lodge welcomes travelers from all over the world, whom Mira attends to along with the help of fellow teenagers Polly and Erin. The novel operates around the various desires and indiscretions of these five, plus the hilariously noun-named Chef, who comprise the staff of the Lavender Island Wilderness Lodge.
Mira is a magnificent narrator: her voice is naïve without being precious. In the Bake Shop attached to the lodge, she “marked a streak of flour on one cheek” so that someone—Ed, hopefully—might find her “flushed, wanton, with a beauty mark of flour.” When Polly describes having given road head as “quick,” Mira remarks to herself: “I was very impressed by this.” The frank discussion of Mira’s sexuality (she masturbates for hours after reading Ed’s name in the phone book, for instance) is a welcome departure from the blushing demureness that’s historically pervaded the coming-of-age novel, in which love is often requited but sex always just out of reach. Mira is sex-obsessed, and sex with Ed is the chief motivation in her life. She wants sex more than she wants love—though she doesn’t exactly know this yet—and it’s funny and touching to watch her stumble across the vast landscape of her adolescent desire, as she is confused by the terrain but determined nevertheless to fulfill her goal. In one particularly raunchy fantasy, she calls Ed “sleazy in mocking tones, and he unbuckled his belt and told me I didn’t know what sleaze was—not yet, I didn’t.” At dinner with her aunt, step-uncle, and Ed, Mira seductively “ate seconds of salmon” under the impression that “it would make me especially feminine in Ed’s eyes.” Rukeyser leans heavily into her narrator’s cluelessness, and the result is pure charm.
The novel would be rich enough if it were just about Mira’s quixotic pursuit of Ed, but there’s more: Stu and Maureen are on the rocks, rather publicly, and Stu is a consummate creep. As Stu cozies up to Erin (Polly was the previous summer’s conquest), Mira watches with detachment, registering that something unsavory and sexy is going on, but not the particulars of the drab married life that’s fomenting it. The accumulation of these moments—Stu’s flirtation with Erin, Maureen righteously nursing a broken heart—textures the book, providing a smart counterpoint to Mira’s naïve crush. We get the sense that love doesn’t come easily in the Alaskan wild, and that no one should expect it to.
In addition to being obsessed with Ed, Mira is obsessed with the concept of sleaze: What does it mean to be sleazy? What things count as sleazy? Is Ed sleazy? Mira’s definition of sleaze is expansive. She keeps a notebook of sleaze, jotting things down as they come to her, studying the world for evidence of sleaziness, teasing its definition out from the objects and people around her. She is bewildered by Ed’s love of sweet things over eggs, ultimately deciding that “sleazy men stopped wanting protein and desired, instead, Dutch pancakes and pie.” By her assessment, the state of Alaska “contained more sleaze than the entire lower forty-eight combined” and “glass bricks are sleazy while normal bricks are not.” The list of sleaze goes on: Formica kitchen tables, soft packs of cigarettes, thin floral dresses. It’s fun to watch Mira form a taxonomy of sleaze in the Alaskan wilderness, which feels anything but sleazy. Mountains and bears and ice floes are hardly cheap lipstick and pleather jackets, but to a hormone-addled teenager, anything and everything looks like sex. Seaplane is at its funniest when Mira is forming her obscure definition of sleaze because we are afforded even more of her endearing interiority, as well as the chance to ponder sleaze right alongside her.
Seaplane’s setting is not the novel’s centerpiece, which is refreshing for a novel about Alaska. There are a cold beach and choppy gray water and plenty of fish but also, when Chef and Mira go into town, a Walmart, a brine-caked hotel, and a Taco Bell. Capitalism’s infiltration of the freezing north feels as commonplace as any teenage crush: We see that in Alaska, not everyone is a hardy homesteader or thrill-seeking survivalist. Some people are just living normal lives, while towing their requisite emotional baggage. The wilderness alone is never called upon to make the book more interesting; rather, it’s what happens there that makes it unknowable and special, resulting in a more singular story.
Seaplane’s humanity is rivaled only by its humor. It’s uncategorizable as solely an Alaska novel or a coming-of-age novel. Instead, it’s a reinvention and remix of both. At just over 270 pages, it’s well worth the short time it takes to get inside Mira’s head. Readers looking for sexual frustration, a creek full of beer, and the definition of sleaze need look no further.
Rafael Frumkin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Medill School of Journalism. He is the author of the novels The Comedown (2018) and Confidence (2023), and the short story collection Bugsy (2024). His fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in Granta, Guernica, Hazlitt, The Washington Post, The Cut, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. He lives in Carbondale, where he is a professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.
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