By Jenny Neyman
Welcome to Nikiski. If you’re new to town, as John Barstow is, meet Harley Pepperdine, Gary “Doorway” Fisk, Mr. Reeder, Billy McCrane, Cynthia Smythe and Maggie Peters. If you already live here, you probably already know them. In a way, anyway.
Being characters in a novel, they don’t exist in real life, per se. But their character traits come straight from reality, channeled through Alan Poynor’s experiences, imagination and word processor. And the world they inhabit is as real as the lunch-lurching bumps on a commuter flight from Anchorage to Kenai, or the sight of a Quonset hut dwarfing a trailer in terms of regional accommodations.
“No real people are represented, it would be a composite of people that I’ve known,” Poynor said. “… But I tried to keep the local descriptions, so that people would be able to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I recognize this!’ And still not get sued.”
Well, with one named exception.
“I knew a guy at work, his dog’s name was Harley Pepperdine. I thought, ‘What a neat name for a character,’” Poynor said.
When setting out to write his first novel, “Somewhere West of Roads,” the longtime humor columnist continued in that vein — taking inspiration from real Alaska life — mining the moose nuggets wherever they may fall, as it were — and dusting them with just enough snowy obfuscation to keep it fictional, but still familiar.
“I’m trying to share Alaska with people who don’t know it, and trying to make the people who do live here maybe reflect a little more on what a unique place we live in,” he said.
It’s experienced through the perspective of Barstow, an insurance man from California, recently dumped from his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. All he’s left with is a mysterious letter in the mail from an attorney in Alaska, representing the estate of Barstow’s recently deceased — but longtime black sheep of the family — uncle, from Nikiski. Hank “Hardrock” Grant had been mining gold in Alaska as long as Barstow could remember, establishing a pay-to-mine recreational lodge on the west side of Cook Inlet, where Bush planes, four-wheelers and snowmachines replace cars and highways as the staples of transportation.
As the letter informs him, Hardrock bequeathed his estate, including the Last Chance Adventures mining operation, to Barstow — but he’ll have to prove up to keep it, by running the mine for a season and ending the year in the black.
It’s a tall order for a city boy who’s never seen a moose, driven on ice, flown in a small plane or owned a good pair of boots. Much less ever mined for gold, unless Goldschlager counts. As Barstow is a recovering alcoholic, it does not.
To pull it off he’ll need help, in the form of Hardrock’s friends and associates in Nikiski. But that doesn’t mean they’ve all bequeathed their allegiance to the new owner of the Last Chance. Barstow will have to earn their respect before he can count on their support.
The most immediately helpful, though instantaneously intimidating, is Gary “Doorway” Fisk, proprietor of the Shuffle Inn bar and lodge in Nikiski, so nicknamed for taking up an entire doorway when entering it. With his direction Barstow meets the others.
There’s Reeder the no-nonsense air taxi pilot with glasses as deep as his experience.
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the guy has crystal balls for lenses,” Barstow remarks in concern to Doorway, at first meeting the pilot.
Billy McCrane is owner of the McCrane’s Mercantile, which ships the groceries and other supplies to Last Chance Adventures. A “hummingbird on speed,” as Doorway describes him, McCrane is as pushy in negotiations as he is devoted to his community — and is able to eat as much groceries as he ships out.
Cynthia Smythe is the bookkeeper, with fingernails as long as her personality is brassy. Though taking no guff from anyone, she’d still do anything for the Last Chance mine, especially if it keeps her close to the object of her long-lashed desire, Pepperdine.
Being Hardrock’s right-hand man, Pepperdine is the key to Barstow’s chances at keeping the mine afloat. Trouble is, he seems more keyed into getting himself into trouble. Not of the purely drunk and stupid variety, but more in well-meaning but misguided efforts on behalf of the few souls he does actually care about.
That includes Maggie Peters, a cook and waitress at the Shuffle Inn, who could have brought Barstow a defibrillator with his order of oatmeal, as she about stopped his heart at first sight of her. But she’s even tougher to navigate than the snow-rutted back roads of Nikiski, liable to scrape the exhaust system off of Barstow’s rental car. Pepperdine would particularly know, since the only thing Maggie cracks harder than the morning’s eggs, is him.
They’re as rough-edged as a snowplow hitting a guardrail, to be sure, but as they pull together to help Barstow attempt the increasingly impossible task of saving the Last Chance, their quirks start to fit better than a worn-in pair of Carhartts.
The importance of those relationships is something Poynor particularly wanted to depict in the book, as that’s a common real-life experience for many in Barstow’s albeit fictional shoes.
“Neither Georgia (Poynor’s wife) or I are from Alaska. Most of our friends were not from Alaska. We had left families behind, so you come up here, and I think it was four or so years before we went back south to visit. What we discovered is you develop a surrogate family — it’s your friends. It’s an alternate support system that would have been filled were your family around you. That’s the concept of what John’s going through. He ends up basically developing a family around here,” Poynor said.
A little more obviously familiar to local readers will be the book’s descriptions of life in this part of Alaska. Every page has something locals would maybe not think twice about, but feel fresh as seen through the eyes of a newcomer like Barstow.
“I had a blast writing the scene where he’s flying into Anchorage the first time,” Poynor said. “I must have rewritten that scene countess times — 12, at least. Every time I rewrote it I thought it ought to be a little longer, no, a little shorter. I found a way to condense it and get a little more info in there. And I hear from people who’ve read it, ‘Man, you’ve been into Anchorage a lot, haven’t you?’ Or the flight down to the Kenai — we’ve all flown the vomit comet, we know what it’s like. Or, ‘Yeah, I snowshoe. I can relate to the hips wanting to pop out of the socket the first time on snowshoes in the winter.’”
The true driver of the plot is the mining mystery that develops at Last Chance — how did Hardrock keep it going, when there isn’t that much money to pan from the visiting miners?
For those with a twinkling interest in recreational mining, the scenes at Last Chance glitter with detail, almost like getting an introductory how-to course on top of a good story. The bulk of Poynor’s research was in this section, to keep the practices as true to life as possible — at least, true to mining as he’s learned about it, being a longtime recreational gold miner, himself.
“It was fun because I had to relive my own experiences, my own screw-ups. And it was nerve-racking because if I don’t get it right (people who know mining) are going to rip it to shreds,” he said. “People that are intimately familiar with something have a tendency to nitpick. I’m sure that there will be a lot of guys that recreational mine that are going to say, ‘Oh, he’s got this all wrong.’ It’s the way I do it — of course, that’s not much of a recommendation.”
As the end of the season approaches, Barstow’s prospects of keeping the mine look dim. Really, though, that’s not unlike his uncle before him.
“… This state was built by people who came here without prospects,” as Maggie tells him.
The secret is in knowing where to look for pay dirt — whether in passed-on wisdom, hard-earned experience or friends to help make it happen. In this case, the trick for Barstow to making all those elements come together is hidden in another totem of life in Alaska — a Quonset hut.
As in real life, resolutions of problems aren’t guaranteed to be the end of them, so there could well be other challenges in store for the folks around the Shuffle Inn.
“I like the characters well enough, and I think there’s enough material about recreational mining that could present enough challenges they have to overcome, that I could make something out of it. I’ve actually got a sequel in mind for it,” Poynor said.
As long as his characters oblige. Wrangling this crew has been a bit like trying to air-traffic control the hoard of seagulls at the Kenai beach during dip-netting season.
“I only write down what the voices in my head tell me to, but there are some scenes that happen in the book that I didn’t have planned, they just evolved. Harley decided to go off in one direction, or John or some other character. Sometimes you’ve got to rein them in,” he said.