Durangotangs are getting a fresh taste of winter lately with the chilly winds, grey skies and a little snow. What could be better than curling up in front of the fire with a great book jam-packed with quirky characters and a compelling story sure to entertain? Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley certainly fits the bill.
Since Straley is from Sitka, Alaska, he has intimate knowledge of unconventional, small town life. Cold Storage itself is a major player in this tale of two brothers, who have led vastly different lives. As the story unfolds, Straley reveals his characters with unflinching pride and doesn’t mock or belittle their unique take on life.
The story opens in April with Clive McCahon walking out of prison after seven long years in the state of Washington. All he can think about is eating a fresh salad. After that, he wants to retrieve his faithful dog and get back his hard earned money, which he earned selling drugs.
Back home in Cold Storage, Alaska, Clive’s younger and straight arrow brother, Miles, continues taking care of their mother, Annabelle, and the town’s population of 150 souls. Miles was a war hero in the first Gulf war and is the town’s physician’s assistant, the closest thing to a doctor this side of Sitka. He has been thinking about leaving town since there are no single, age-appropriate women available, and the townspeople seem to glory in their lack of healthy living. Hard drinking and depression are the big winners in this small, coastal fishing village, and Miles is getting tired of losing this fight.
Meanwhile Clive learns from Oscar, a former coworker, that his dog died. This news hits him hard, but as a consolation, Oscar offers him the intimidating, scarred guard dog from the storage business owned by Jake, Clive’s former boss. The dog, Little Brother, figures prominently in Clive’s future.
Clive decides the criminal life is not for him, and he has a plan to go home and be a productive member of society. Straley’s description of Clive’s attempt to get Little Brother back to Cold Storage in a small plane flying out of Juneau is both terrifying and hysterical. This episode sets the tone of events to comem and, unfortunately, Annabelle does not get to see Clive’s return.
At the clinic, one of Miles’ patients, Billy Cox, a former band member, wants to kayak to Seattle to see the Dalai Lama. As he trains for this Olympic styled event, Miles must patch up his sores while trying to talk him out of this ill-advised trip. Billy follows though with his plan and starts South. After a sea disaster, he ends up on cruise ship and joins a new band with a fetching manager, Bonnie. Months later after another milder setback, he returns to Cold Storage with his band, Blind Monkey. This is a good thing for Clive since he has realized his dream of reopening the only bar/church in town and can use some entertainment to jazz up the place, improbably named Mouse Miller’s Love Nest.
When Jake arrives in town to try to get Clive’s money and to try to realize his own dream of making a successful movie (Being a drug kingpin was only his day job), the action in Cold Storage really goes into overdrive. This event also secures Little Brother’s title as the scariest dog in the state.
Straley’s portrayal of Cold Storage, Alaska – a small town on the edge of extinction – and it’s colorful and eccentric characters is a crime novel replete with literary prose. His description of the human condition as played out by his band of characters ranges from pathetic to amazingly humorous. Straley crafts characters grabbing readers, and he pulls them into the messy, fascinating lives of Miles, Clive and the others. They all live in a place that becomes the leading character of this screwball mystery of a story. This is a book that is a joy to read.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Leslie Doran is a Durango freelance reviewer.