[3 December 2009]
Roesch’s debut novel is a riveting story about two 17-year-old cousins in rural Alaska: one who is pulling his life back together, and one who is coming completely unraveled.
Cesar, the narrator, grew up running with a gang in Los Angeles, and his brother is in jail for murdering two teenagers in a rival gang. Go-boy, his cousin in Unalakleet Alaska, has known a completely different kind of life, taking pride in village ways and community values, knowing at a glance what kind of fish are spawning in the river at any given time. The novel is sprinkled with details about the construction of traditional hunting knives, and the everyday pleasures of taking an old boat out on the river, just to drift and drink Pepsi.
Cesar’s mother relocates her family to her native Alaska after her older son is jailed and her husband has left, thinking she’ll return to the good life, far from the mess of southern California. When Cesar meets Go-boy, his cousin accepts him unconditionally and can’t wait to show him everything in the village. At first Cesar can’t believe he’s stuck in rural Alaska, but his relief at escaping the gang lifestyle that he saw his brother get trapped in is bigger than his frustration with the relocation.
Once he gets settled in to village life and starts finding pleasure in learning to drum or simply riding his bike, Cesar stops thinking about how to get back to California and help his brother get out of jail. But Cesar also feels strongly that because the villagers, and the pretty girl he has his eye on, Kiana, have no idea what he was involved in in the past, he’ll never really fit in. Go never pushes Cesar to talk about his past and the violence he was involved in, but in his mind Cesar keeps returning to it and wondering when his new life will fall apart.
Until they know what he has done in his past, until they know the worst thing he was capable of in Los Angeles— participating in a gang rape—Cesar doesn’t think the people he cares about in Unalakleet can really know him. Cesar sometimes almost holds his breath, wondering when the truth will come out—because he feels the need to share it himself.
It turns out that Go-boy will provide all the drama Cesar could hope to avoid, as Go’s overwhelming love for his girlfriend turns twisted and threatening, and the villagers try to figure out what is going on.
Roesch’s novel has a large spiritual component. Go-boy strives to reconcile his personal philosophy, that there is some inherently good force that guides the actions of people throughout the world, with the violence and domestic problems that plague Unalakleet. In his attempts to grab the attention of the community and share the good news that he believes that love will conquer all, Go alienates many people. Yet his misguided actions sometimes result in serendipitous successes as well, like the village pizza place that opens up because the owner gets inspired by Go’s ministrations.
For a novel about rural Alaska that might seem inaccessible to someone from outside the kind of life that is described, Roesch uses Cesar’s outsider point of view effectively. For someone who has never watched a river full of spawning salmon, or cut herself and gotten an infection from slicing seal meat, the details that Roesch includes are thoughtful. Just as the reader observes ordinary life in a community cut off from the outside world, accustomed to taking care of its own problems, Cesar is experiencing such a lifestyle for the first time and his point of view is fresh and engaging.
Roesch sets up a complex network of village relationships in the novel, and does a great job of representing the struggles and convictions that guide the residents of this remote Alaskan village. The struggle to survive, to hunt, to escape, even to withstand the temptation of alcoholism, it’s all very real and very compelling.