Tag Archives: Homer

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.  “King Salmon.”  In my book, Halibut Rodeo. In my first entry about this story, posted oh so many months ago, I wrote about the my admiration of Raymond Carver, and how the short story master influenced so many of us in MFA programs during the 80s. (Many critics were none too pleased about that influence.) “King Salmon” came about because I felt the need to tell more of the Slime Line Queen’s story, since a number of early readers of my work really liked her. She’s not the protagonist, however. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of an ex who still lives in the Lower 48. “King Salmon” contains a story within a story. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic, tells his sponsor about his past relationship with the Slime-Line Queen, and his vain attempt to travel to Homer, Alaska to win her back. The middle part of the story is his account of that trip. He does find the Slime-Line Queen at the Salty Dawg Saloon. (The Salty Dawg Saloon is real, by the way. This past summer my brother Mike ordered t-shirts from there.) Later, the narrator ends up on Homer Spit beach to fish, where he catches a .
20 pound King Salmon.

While the rest of the story comes straight from my imagination, the catching of the fish is based on experience. Fairly early during the salmon season, I had an evening off from Seward Fisheries. John Calhoun, Sr., my gracious host for the summer, as well as mayor of Homer, took his son and I snagging on the beach. You don’t use bait for snagging, just a barbed hook. Kachemak Bay is so thick with spawning salmon you can toss a line out into the bay, snap your wrist, and hook yourself a big-ass fish. Like the narrator in the story, I did just that. We weren’t at it very long, less than an hour perhaps. After John schooled me on the technique he left me to my own devices. He had never snagged a salmon before, but assured me it could be done. I was dubious. I had never heard of this kind of fishing. But sure enough, I snagged one. I don’t know how long it took to bring in the fish, but it was at least twenty minutes. By the end the tide had come in and I was standing in water. In my mind’s eye right now I see John splashing through ankle deep water net in hand. He scooped up the fish, grinning from ear to ear, and said it was 20 pounds easy.

We took it back to his garage, gutted it, and sliced it into steaks. Over the next week, day after day before going to work to clean salmon for 12 hours a pop, I scarfed down the steaks drenched in the hollandaise sauce Hans whipped up. Did I tire of salmon? Hell no! According to Anthony Bourdain, professional chefs like to ask themselves what they’d eat for their last meal if they ever find themselves on Death Row.

Me? I want one of those salmon steaks.

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King Salmon

In the 1980’s Raymond Carver was the scourge of creative writing professors.  It’s not that they necessarily had anything against the short story master; it’s just that too many of their students tried to imitate him.  Early in his career Carver was labeled a “minimalist.”  His style is sparse and deceptively simple.  He uses few figures of speech, and very little description.  Many of his stories are “dialogue heavy.”  Critics threw him into the same camp as Hemingway, the other end of the spectrum from Lessing or Pynchon.  Writing students ate him up.  He just seemed so easy. Carver never embraced the term “minimalist.”  He wasn’t into that “tip of the iceberg thing” Hemingway went on about.  He maintained that his “simple” style was an attempt to recreate the limited viewpoint of an alcoholic.  Like their creator, many early Carver protagonists struggled with substance abuse.  They wouldn’t bother to “see” a setting, or specific details.  Their minds are too preoccupied with the daily battle with the bottle.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the typical protagonist showing his junk in a creative writing workshop wasn’t an alcoholic.  Students attempted to emulate Carver’s style for no other reason than it seemed easy.  But like modern painting, it’s not as simple as it looks.  MFA programs started churning out “cookie cutter” stories, composed by “cookie cutter” writers.  In 1989, C. Michael Curtis, then fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly, visited my fiction workshop at Wichita State and implored us not to follow suit.  (MFA programs are still accused of producing an endless stream of writers that all sound the same.)

I like to think I took Curtis’s advice to heart.  Still, I love Carver, and there are glimpses of my admiration of him in Halibut Rodeo. Stylistically, “A Man Loves His Cat” comes closest to a Carveresque story.  But I pay most conscious homage to him in “King Salmon.”  This story within a story recounts one man’s relationship with the Slime-Line Queen.  Like many of Carver’s protagonists he is a recovering alcoholic.  At the beginning, he invites his sponsor over for a meal of King Salmon.  While they’re eating, I adopt the tone Carver uses in the dinner scene in “Cathedral,” justifiably his most famous story.  After the two men devour the fish, the protagonist relates his attempt to win back the Slime-Line Queen by driving from North Dakota to Homer, Alaska, diamond ring in tow.  Like so many of Carver’s anti-heroes, he doesn’t achieve his goal.   True understanding is often just out of reach for Carver’s characters.  The Slime Line Queen becomes an almost mystical character in the book, despite her harsh past.  For many readers of the book she is a favorite character, even though she never appears as protagonist.  Maybe even for me, her creator, she’s beyond full comprehension.

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The Prince of Kodiak: Old Believers, or Going Rogue

Alfred, an Aleut Native, is the title character of “The Prince of Kodiak,” the third story in Halibut Rodeo. Alfred is a large guy, the type of dude, as my father pointed out, that you want on your side in a bar fight. In the story he falls for an Old Believer named Anneke.  Anneke wears a brightly colored skirt and blouse to work, even though that work entails the gutting of fish.  She never works on Sundays, even though it would pay overtime.  In “Breaking the Halibut” Leo, one of the supervisors, is expelled from Anneke’s village for listening to the radio and smoking hash.

Early drafts of these stories were workshopped by other MFA students during my time at Wichita State.  One student cried foul for Leo’s expulsion, because he didn’t find it believable.  Bob Shacochis, the leader of the workshop, asked what the class knew about Old Believers.

Nothing, it turned out.  The student who didn’t buy Leo’s expulsion assumed I had made then up.

No, I didn’t make them up.  There are about 1,500 Old Believers in Alaska.  Their founders were part of a splinter group that left Oregon in the 1960s because they feared the influence of American culture on their kids.  Like so many other characters in my book, they rejected a life in the Lower 48 to pursue a new existence in America’s Final Frontier.

Old Believers don’t originate in Oregon, however.  In the 17th century Nikon (no relation to the camera), the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, instituted a number of changes to church ritual to bring it closer to that of the Greek Orthodox.  Most of these changes were minor: the number of fingers used to make the sign of the cross, for example, or the proper way to spell “Jesus.”  As is usually the case with the religious, not everyone went along with it.  (Religious history is filled with these traditionalists.  A few survive, like the Coptic Christians of Egypt.  Most don’t.)  The Czar adopted the changes, though, so those who didn’t were first excommunicated by the Church, and then persecuted by the Russian government.  These Old Believers fled, some going to the outskirts of the Russian Empire, like Siberia, or modern day Bulgaria.  Eventually a number of them ended up in Oregon.

Like the Amish and the Mennonites, Old Believers are very protective of their heritage  Purveyors of American culture (radio, television, computers) are often banned in Old Believer towns.  Until recently, teachers in some Old Believer schools were not allowed to have computers in their classroom.  Now some have them on their desks, but the students are not given access.

But times are a’changin.’  Alaskan Old Believers have traditionally made their living in the fishing industry.  But fishing is a feast or famine occupation.  There have been bans on fishing King Crab in Alaska, and the Exxon oil spill wreaked havoc on the salmon and halibut populations in not only Prince William Sound, but also in the waters around Kachemak Bay.  More Old Believers than ever before are finishing high school and looking for work in places like Anchorage.

This “modernization” will certainly lead to more fracturing of the community.  Periodic schisms seem to be the norm amongst Old Believers.  In Nikolaevsk, an Old Believer village on Kenai Peninsula, not far from Homer, the powers that be decided to reintroduce priests to their church.  Formal clergy had been banned in the past.  They even found a priest in Romania and brought him to Alaska.  (Kinda like Joel, the doctor from New York, in “Northern Exposure.”)  But just like before, not everyone embraced the change.  The bezpopovtsy, or “Priestless Old Believers,” left Nikolaevsk and started their own community out in the middle of nowhere.  Talking about Going Rogue…

Which reminds me: I wander what Alaskan Old Believers think of Sarah Palin?

I like to think they’ve never heard of heard of her.

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On Halibut

The halibut is a flat fish that skims the bottom of the ocean hugging the shores of Alaska and Kamchatka. But it starts off as a “normal” fish, swimming side to side like Nemo. Only once it reaches maturity does it flop over and head for cooler, darker climes. It loses its uniformity of color as its bottom (once a side) takes on a creamy whiteness, and its top turns the color of the ocean floor for camouflage, both against predator and prey. The eye on the bottom eventually migrates to the top. Even with the oldest halibut this evolutionary arrangement never looks quite right. That second, wandering eye is never perfectly aligned with the other; it looks forced, off-kilter, as if Nature hasn’t quite figured out where it should go. But the halibut is not a vain fish. It swims undetected beneath its quarry, a fattened black cod perhaps, or a spindly snow crab, and dives, but upwards, snatching its dinner, exerting the most energy it will all day. If indeed the cod hurls an insult at this Quasimodo of the fish world, his bemusement will not last long. Once inside the belly of the halibut, the cod will have its own problems. Meanwhile, his host will enjoy an after dinner snooze.

As far as predators go, well, let’s face it: after a certain age the only predators halibut have to worry about are human. The fish can grow up to eight feet long, and can tip a really big scale at 700 pounds. Snag one over a hundred pounds at Homer’s annual Halibut Derby and you got yourself a Trophy Fish. Something that big doesn’t go down without a fight, though. It might take three or four people to haul it on board, and once there it will start slamming into things. The wise captain fires at least one shot from a .22 into the halibut’s brain pain to keep its death throes from destroying the boat. After that? Hang it from a meat hook and get your picture taken, the white side towards the camera. Funny that the evolutionary turns meant to protect the halibut from its predators are ultimately useless against the sportsman’s hook. Does the halibut sigh in relief once it gets so big that no other form of marine life will mess it with it? Fat lot that does for it. Now it’ll be sought as a Trophy. And if you get one, save the cheeks for me; that’s the best part.

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The Art of Squeezing Herring

I’m one-half Polish, so herring is supposed to be in my blood. Does not every respectable Pole eat herring at New Year’s in order to ensure good luck for the following 12 months? My father does so every year. But when I was a kid, there were only two acceptable forms of fish: the kind in a can, and the kind in the form of a stick. Yes, my grandmother prepared a breaded form on Christmas Eve, but I took only one or two polite bites in order to save room for the real reason for the season: peirogi. The herring my father would eat a week later came in a jar (of all things) and was buried in what looked like creamy-milky goodness. Goodness, that is, until you took a bite and discovered an evil smelling, raw tasting fish. Disgusting.

My relationship with herring wasn’t helped by my first visit to Sweden. Hans decided to have a crawfish party for myself and Phil Deal, a friend of mine from grad school. Since crawfish (like everything else in Sweden) is ridiculously expensive, Hans augmented the feast with sour herring. He handed me the innocuous looking can and asked me to open it. I whipped out my Swiss Army knife and applied the can opener. Soon as I punctured the top I was sprayed by a substance that can only be described as Satan’s Body Wash. Sour herring is essentially fermented fish. Yeast is dumped into it before it’s canned. Nasty juices boil and bubble under the lid for years, just waiting for an idiot American to unleash hell with a $15 pocket knife. While I wiped the results of the herring shower from my hair and face, Hans doubled over in laughter. “Har, har” I said, always the good sport. I even vowed to eat the wretched stuff, only to be instructed that you should bury the fish in a mound of mashed potatoes and two pieces of really strong rye bread, anything to mask the taste that rivaled the smell in vileness. Swedes eat this voluntarily? With plenty of vodka, one Swede told me. You need something in your belly for the herring to swim in.

Many Japanese people eat herring roe, which is even worse than sour herring. In my book Halibut Rodeo I mention the Herring Line, but it’s not a job I describe in detail. It was actually the first job I did at Sew-Fish in Homer. Once the herring are caught, they are left to rot on the docks for two weeks. It’s not the flesh itself that’s prized, but the egg sacs that are sold as aphrodisiacs in Japan. Once the fish have rotted some, their bellies begin to split. This is when they’re trucked into the fish processing plant and dumped on a conveyor line. Fools like me swaddle up to the line in rain gear and Wellingtons and proceed to squeeze the bellies until one of two things happen: if it’s a female, the egg sacks, which look like a segment of yellow grapefruit, pop out of the tearing belly. These you gingerly place on an interior conveyor belt. They will eventually find themselves in the Japanese-supervised egg room. If it’s a male herring, a substance like gelatinous mayo explodes out of the belly, with bits of the repugnant goo lodging themselves in your eyes and nose. The smell? Suffice it to say that if even one drop of herring juice found its way between glove and rain coat and just gently kissed the sleeve of your flannel shirt, burning said shirt was the only viable option. If sour herring juice is Satan’s Body Wash than this shit was his highly concentrated perfume. Then why squeeze the males? Can’t you tell the difference? No, you can’t. Big Boss Man told us to squeeze every one, so that’s what we did.

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On “The Slime-Line Queen”

“The Slime-Line Queen” is the opening story of Halibut Rodeo. In some ways it serves as a type of overture to the book, introducing a number of motifs, as well as many of the characters that appear in their own stories. It was my first “Alaska” story, and the second story I wrote as a graduate student in Bob Shacoshis’ workshop at Wichita State. During that first semester of graduate school I lived in a cruddy basement apartment that was infested with crickets. My shower was a tin washtub with a drain hole punched into the bottom. The only place to sit was the bed. Most of the rest of the basement stored the landlady’s lifetime accumulation of old clothes and appliances. It was dark and damp, but the rent was only $110 a month. More importantly, hotshot fiction writer James Lee Burke lived next door.

I punched out “The Slime-Line Queen” on a cheap typewriter while scrunched over my bed. The first draft was substantially longer than what first appeared in “Writers’ Forum,” a journal from Colorado. It contained sections about the protagonist’s sexual awakening before he travels to Homer to work at Seward Fisheries. Shacoshis quite rightly pointed out that so many lengthy flashbacks about the protagonist removed the reader from the immediate story, and in no way advanced the plot. I had probably taken the whole “show, don’t tell” axiom way too literally. In my earlier stories I relied too much on dramatization to round out my characters, rather than well-chosen details. I revised the story that semester, and the version in Halibut Rodeo is pretty close to that version.

One early reader once asked me if “The Slime-Line Queen” was “real.” In some ways, yes, she is. Her physical appearance is inspired by a woman I didn’t know who worked at Seward Fisheries: a tall blond woman who always wore the same jeans and flannel shirt. My character’s personality and mannerisms was inspired by another woman I worked with. Unlike me, she lived in Alaska year round, and had been working at the plant for a number of years already. Some of the events in the story are autobiographical. The woman did live in a cabin in the woods, and I did indeed spend a sexless night with her. The details about Seward Fisheries and the slime-line are taken directly from personal experience. Many of the workers did camp out on the beach, and all the businesses I mention, including the Salty Dawg Saloon, really did exist. (During the workshop, one fellow student mocked my name choice for the bar.) In the story the relationship between the protagonist and the slime-line queen is far more serious than anything that happened between me and the woman who lived in the cabin. If I had stuck to the “truth,” the story wouldn’t have been terribly interesting. While most of the actual events of the story are made-up, the protagonist is only a slightly veiled version of me.

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On Homer: The Eagle Lady

Many of the characters and situations in Halibut Rodeo are inspired by my stay in Homer.  Like most fiction writers, I often speculate on the lives of people I see on the street, inventing identities, imagining conflicts, etc.  Such ponderings often lead to fully developed characters in my short stories.  Many of the main characters in Halibut Rodeo have their origins in this process.  Other characters live on the fringe of the book as an aspect of setting, adding shades of detail to the main action. The Eagle Lady is one such “detail.” She worked at Seward Fisheries, and even though I saw her nearly every day, I never said more than a few words to her. It was hard to tell how old she was. Nearly 70 was my guess, though she still wore heavy make up and a mass of curly red hair that might have been a wig. She was about six feet tall and walked with a severe limp. Someone told me the limp was from a career as a rodeo rider. After retirement she moved to Homer. And why the Eagle Lady? Bald eagles are nothing unusual in Homer. You see one every day in the summer. For years the Eagle Lady had been feeding the eagles in her backyard with scrapes of fish. Up until a few years ago, at least, the second largest concentration of Bald Eagles in Alaska was in the ex-rodeo rider’s backyard.

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