by Seth Kantner (Milkweed Editions) $22
It's difficult to read Seth Kantner's debut novel, Ordinary Wolves, and not think that it must be autobiographical. The practical, sensory facts of survival in the Alaskan wilderness; the vivid character of a fiercely self-reliant father who moves his young family out on the tundra to live by their wits and hands in a sod igloo; the raw displacement felt by the narrator, Cutuk, a white kid at home neither among his Eskimo neighbors nor in the white cities of the North: All of these appear to have the intense specificity of experience. But whether Kantner's life story matches Cutuk's (it does, in some of its basic outline) is almost beside the point. Autobiographical or imagined, the book feels lived, and carries a life of its own.
That life is, more than anything, in the details: indoor icicles tasting of "frozen breath and wet caribou hair"; the village currency of two-party checks; the matter-of-fact strategies for butchering lynx, moose, porcupine, wolf; an orphaned Native baby named Whitney-Houston; water pooling on the floor of an Anchorage trailer home from a leak behind the furnace. Cutuk's story, with its modestly mythical structure, is actually the least fresh element of the book: He grows from a young boy to a young man, leaves for Anchorage, and feels the pull of the land again. By comparison, the characters around him follow paths resolutely unresolved, populating Kantner's fictional world with lives independent of his hero's in an endlessly believable and compelling way.
Because of Cutuk's repeated insistence on respect for the wild land, this will be called an "environmental novel," but such a label doesn't do it justice. For Kantner's greatest respect is for the strange and beautiful facts of life wherever he finds them.