‘Far Alaska’

One might consider “Far Alaska,” the new novel by Mason Smith, something of a coming-of-age story. The story includes drinking binges, sexual experimentation, travel with only a vague sense of destination in mind, silly risk taking, flirtation with drug use.

There’s difficulty in labeling the story of a 72-year-old man as belonging to the coming-of-age genre, yet protagonist Clarence Shampine is in many ways an unformed personality. Generally a loner, he’s the type of person others point out from afar, with his old-style clothes and habits, and his reverence for long-obsolete skills like driving horses. Up close, he can be repellent with his coarse features, poor language, and aversion to washing.

Something has happened in his life, an event which the author comes close to delineating but never quite makes clear. Clarence decides it’s time to leave the Adirondack town of Sabattis Falls where he’s always lived. On a whim, he enlists Hester, the overweight daughter of a local farmer, to go with him. Her decision to leave is as unlikely as his, yet comes to feel every bit as inevitable.

The two live a spartan existence. They get to know each other, and to like each other, more than either might have expected. Heading vaguely toward Alaska, they almost get their bankroll stolen, find themselves in the middle of a bank robbery, and drive in convoy with a young mother and her kids.

Not a natural wanderer, Clarence responds to seeing copper mines, potash factories, and oil fields on the pair’s northern route cross-continent with these words “always wondered what made Canada tick and now he knew, digging it up and selling it.” In time Clarence begins stealing things, first a revolver, next a knife, then a horse. Hester expresses abhorrence but goes along as a willing partner. Meanwhile she passes time buying maps and reading avidly from tourist materials.

The novel is written in third person, with Clarence’s sensitivities driving the narrative. Purposeful use of sentence fragments and suboptimal grammar initially put me off. Some observations simply don’t feel as if they could have emanated from the same narrator. “It came over him again how many people in how many carapaces of steel on rubber were shattering the air around the steadily grinding truck …”

Selected carefully crafted passages melt away some of my complaints. “He was adapting fast but his new life had still taken him by surprise and in between his moments of levity and secret gladness he did experience the shock, not from the bullet that was not fired at him after all, but maybe something like it, enough to make a man stagger and stumble.”

Characterization stands as the novel’s strength. Clarence and Hester are well-drawn and lingered in mind long after I completed reading the book. So did some of Clarence’s thoughts. “Nothing was as he’d dreamed. Mistake to dream all your life and then go pursue the dream so late when everything has changed.” It’s a testimony to his fortitude that he never stopped trying.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.