Last month, 49 Writers hosted a Crosscurrents conversation in Anchorage at the Writers Block featuring three Boreal Books authors—Rob McCue, Mary Odden, and Susanna Mishler—with Jeremy Pataky moderating. We’re pleased to cross-post this review of McCue’s book by Mary Odden, whose own book is forthcoming from Boreal Books. This review—plus several photographs not included here—was originally published online by Denali Sunrise Publications.
Rob McCue’s One Water is a refreshingly interior account, not only because the first person narrator reports from inside the action—often the interior of the city cab he drives in half the stories—but also in the sense of “interior” Alaska, with Fairbanks as its hub and “big village.” Even his backcountry adventures take place along Tanana or Yukon tributaries or the great mountains that give rise to these. It’s a feisty guy narrative from the underserved center of the state that quickly surprises you with its inclusiveness. You never know who is going to get in the cab with McCue.
McCue delivers by interacting thoughtfully, impulsively, or profanely with his close quarter companions, reporting stories and dialog in the natural language of the participants. McCue does not have to tell you when a companion is a punk youngster or a village man whose grandparent spoke another language, or when a guided hunter is a jerk, ruined by privilege. It’s all there in the speech. And lovely idiomatic descriptions abound in McCue’s own voice, as with Neal of the camo cab turned opportunistic outfitter “who could sell water to fish.”
Unless he’s backed himself up to give you some scientific or cultural perspective, McCue is a participant in the action. He has a dog in this fight, and he is often the dog. You might not like him all the time. He invites his reader to be shared with, put off, or be engaged, to look at what is being described from a number of viewpoints. The sum total of all these partial or partisan views is sometimes a breathless uncertainty for the reader. Outcomes are in no way certain. As I read, I was often cheered by the heft of the remaining unread pages. These reassured me that the narrator had lived past a childhood, a drug deal, antipathy toward a big game client, a bad decision in a mountain pass, another threatening midnight rider, even a banal transport to bingo that morphed into the passenger’s own compelling story.
McCue hands off the joystick to the reader early in the book, when he initiates us into the workings of cab drivers and dispatchers. In subsequent cab sessions, he never has to tell you again when he’s “Red 29 North,” or “Green for Fred Meyers,” or that the urgent abusive banter pouring out of Smurf the Dispatcher as he works the board can be regarded as a form of love.
The stories of One Water are compressed from multiple instances—this is probably why McCue chooses to call them stories instead of non-fiction essays. But people familiar with scenes oscillating between McCue’s Fairbanks cab and his wild country adventures will experience the pleasure of recognition. From the small white bow on a blue cap worn by a Native elder to the way a chunk of peat splashes into cold chocolate-colored water at a cut bank, McCue’s ability to capture detail reminds the initiated and welcomes the newcomer, in spite of McCue’s early interdiction that “hordes from the lower 48” are welcome to remain where they are.
A river trip on the “Skoog” near the end of the book is especially crowded with details of experience. As McCue watches a dragonfly, he describes the dozen molts that precede its flight. He faces off with a cow moose and calf on nearly every river bend. A bear stalks him while another bear bolts, its coat rippling. There’s the gaze of a great horned owl, “Big yellow eyes on me like he’s checking out the insides of my pores.” There’s a kingfisher disappearing into its muddy tunnel, an eagle, a cross fox, white fronted geese, the probable thoughts of blackpoll warbler, more moose. Because McCue has gathered the observations he wants to share from many trips, this trip has a supernatural density that belies the narrative of Alaska’s sparse and empty land. McCue, I think, has crowded these paragraphs with intention, with determination for us to see the profundity of this place.
McCue takes on big questions throughout the book, about human nature, about the endangered earth. One of the strengths of One Water is that he’s able to bring those immense topics down to personal, a trick analogous to reconciling Newton and Heisenberg. Methane and the thawing of the north are a subject of the river trip, as is the childlike glee of McCue’s neighbor Kurt, who frees swamp gas bubbles with a log spike and lights them with a butane torch.
McCue knows a lot about a lot of things. One Water has a strong vertical dimension, descending at times through an asphalt-covered street to a pre-contact Athabascan camp on a river, down in the riverbed to forms of mastodon and tiger, to the silt-winds that filled the valley, on down to the crunching of tectonic plates that wrinkled the valley into its shape. McCue knows Alaska geology and history, loess and granite domes and schist shot with gold-laden quartz and the effect of that particular composition on all of us. He wants you the reader to know that the place you are sitting has not always been the kind of place you perceive it to be—even if McCue has just made it so vivid you can smell the mud or see the cab meter numbers turning and glowing in the dark.
He wants you to see substrata in cab clients and companions, too, inter-generational trauma from years when Native groups lost 60 percent of their populations to illness and the layered lives of soldiers, drunks, and junkies, shrunken men wheeling their oxygen tanks. As he warns us early on, “That’s why if I’m behind the wheel, nobody in the car is in the second person. Anything they might be is more complicated than what’s merely apparent—larger than you and than me.”
McCue also likes physics and refers to it often, especially ideas about time. There’s a sense of ever-increasing distance between himself and friends he’s lost, friends like Eric who becomes the name of a loved river and a possible twist in time itself: “sometimes I wonder if we exist in all the moments of our lives simultaneously, and we’re still those wide-eyed, barely-old-enough-to-drink guys on the adventure of a lifetime.”
In his naturalist voice, McCue describes the northward march of black spruce forest and compares the cold thwarting strategies of winter resident red polls and chickadees. He brings archaeology and anthropology to bear with a suspicion of his own suppositions: “My envy for the [Gwich’in] relationship with the natural world is misguided; they weren’t part of a relationship. They were part of this place. And if I were able to meet them and tell them of my admiration, they’d probably tell me to go back to my time and bring them some food.”
To bring his wild companions into focus, McCue fearlessly anthropomorphizes, converses, observes, and speculates. Bull moose are on the menu and they are exuberant expressions of male sexuality, too, a pheromone and pee-soaked conversation between hunter guy and moose that McCue invents and loads with machismo. McCue and his dog companion argue over killing a bear, “Are you waiting for him to come back in the night when you won’t even be able to aim your boom stick?” while McCue is also explaining bear biology to the reader, the probable hunger of an exiled bear youngster, and the fact of himself right square in the bears’ way.
In his urban interludes, there are comparisons to make between McCue’s sanguine looks at the fact of himself and his midnight cab clients, “sharing our mutual desperation until the sun returns,” and Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie, a frank account of growing up rough in a derelict eastern textile town. Like the young Dubus, McCue’s adrenaline can rise at the fear of a murderous “other,” in McCue’s case a sullen young man who takes the invisible seat behind the driver, where the driver can’t see him. McCue draws his knife and has it ready, he’s prepared to crash the cab into a bank at 50 mph. He’s amazed by his readiness to join the “river of blood flowing just beneath the veneer of social convention.”
Also like Dubus, McCue conveys a respect for human differences by just laying a scene of despair or disheveled human behavior, without additional explanation, up against a description of his hopes or an avowal of what he believes. A cab ride with some lost boys of the Stryker Brigade with their innocent obscenity precedes an account of McCue’s evolving love for his wife, Michelle, and the difficult birth of their son, Cord. A moment of intense sexual temptation at a young woman’s door is followed by an account of the ways Cord has changed McCue’s expectations for himself.
The overarching movement of One Water is toward self-knowledge and family, but McCue doesn’t confuse stability with standing still. His companions have no interest in standing still, either. Michele, his wife and a respected public school teacher in the now of the book, once joined him in the dangerous thrill of being swept along the icy outside walkway of an Alaska ferry from bow to stern. As the book tends toward loyalty, in the vernacular of the book, “an urgent need not to fuck this up,” it also insists on movement: “Keep moving. Keep taking trips. Keep writing. Keep building the house. Do something good for humanity from time to time. But keep moving and be aware of each step to be truly alive and free.”
And Cord, McCue’s reason for “understanding the stories I’ve lived,” is celebrated for his wild three-year old exuberance. He’s ready to take on that bear and protect his family, pretty much like his dad has been doing.
Mary Odden reads and writes in Nelchina, Alaska.