Deb: Going to Extremes, 30 years later

Joe McGinniss and I each came to Alaska in the late 1970s. Like many, I came on a bit of a lark, for a teaching adventure. Like many, I stayed. Alaska became my Alaska. In many ways, we grew up together.

McGinniss, who’d come to research a book, had even less intention of staying than I did. As he notes in the introduction to a new Epicenter edition of Going to Extremes, thirty years passed before McGinniss returned to Alaska, this time to research a magazine article on Alaska’s natural gas pipeline, the one Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin had conjured as if from thin air.

What I remember most from when it first came out in 1980 is not so much the McGinness’s book but the Alaskan buzz about it. The gall of this young author from Outside. Never mind that at that time he was the youngest living author to have made the New York Times bestseller list. How dare he barge in uninvited. How dare he breeze through and act like he knew us. How dare he parade our dirty laundry in front of the world. The fact that the New York Times said McGinniss had succeeded in finding out what Alaska really was, and that the Christian Science Monitor called the book “first-person reporting at its finest” only intensified the outrage.

Thirty years after, Alaska’s Outsider-Insider debate rages on. Its roots reach deep into colonialism and the quick, fiery sense of independence that characterizes a lot of us who’ve appropriated Insider status. But I like to think, growing up, we’ve acquired distance and grace enough to acknowledge the wisdom of the psychological model of the Johari window. In one of its panes are those things others see but you don’t. Ignore that truth and you’re unlikely to ever fully self-actualize.

Thirty years after the initial release of Going to Extremes, I’ve come to know almost every town Joe McGinniss breezed through. I’ve even become friends with a few of the people he met. Even as an entrenched Insider, I found much to appreciate in the book when I re-read it last week. As an author, I’ve had enough experience with reviewers to know that it’s not the fault of McGinniss that the New York Times claimed he’d discovered the real Alaska when in fact it’s clear from his method that he set out to record first impressions, calculated for effect and in many instances, for shock value.

Non-fiction requires an angle, a theme. The one McGinness chased is clear from his title: extremes. He traipsed after outlandish characters and experiences. If you were in Alaska in the late 1970s, you have to admit neither was too tough to find. And McGinness pulled out all the stops to get the desired effect. For a three-day, fly-out wilderness experience at a Crescent Lake in Kenai, he purposely brought nothing to read. To get a sense of Yup’ik life in a remote village, he intruded in grand Ugly American-style, without a shred of cultural sensitivity.

True, McGinness’s fine first-person reporting doesn’t always embrace total accuracy. One example of many: tossing honey-bucket contents out the front door, which McGinniss reports in a couple of instances, wouldn’t happen in any of the twenty-plus Yup’ik villages I’ve been to. But it’s powerful first-person journalism that immerses the reader in true and searing impressions. At many points in the book, the effect is not just captivating but jaw-dropping.

And the book feels masterfully designed. In the first half, you feel yourself carried as if from one train-wreck to the next, horrified both at the content and yourself, the voyeur, eager for the next horrific experience he’ll share. Once he’s got you thoroughly hooked, McGinniss shifts his approach. Having baited his readers, he introduces them to thoughtful, balanced Alaskans. He even lets them tell their own stories, with depth. He takes readers on a life-altering journey through the Brooks Range.

McGinniss never pretends to be anything other than an Outsider, an interloper on the landscape. By the end of the book, he comes full circle to prove the truth of the Robert Marshall quote with which he opens the book: “Actually, only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness…Mankind as a whole is too numerous for its problem of happiness to be solved by the simple expedient of paradise.”

Thirty years ago, Going to Extremes was the fresh, shocking, “now” book that got Alaskans buzzing like a swarm of tundra mosquitoes. Today, it’s a slice of history, an Outsider’s well-wrought perspective that we’d have been hard pressed to have seen for ourselves. I’m glad Epicenter decided to re-release it, and glad McGinniss is applying his keen eye and talents to a new project: Sarah Palin’s Year of Living Dangerously, scheduled for release in 2011.

And I’m especially glad Joe McGinniss is helping to launch our 49 Writers fall literary season with a reading and book signing at Metro Books this Thursday, Aug. 26, at 6:30 p.m. Outsider, Insider – the distinctions don’t matter when we’ve got a chance to learn from a master of the non-fiction craft.

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