The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

February 3, 2014


Clive McCahon is a drug dealer fresh out of a Washington state prison after seven years, the last three of which he was in "protective segregation." Nobody was actively targeting Clive, but he'd reached a point where he was ready for a do-over. He wanted peace, law-abiding peace. No guns, no drugs, no retaliation. But on the way back to his hometown of Cold Storage, Alaska, Clive picks up two things: a big pile of money which might be his or might belong to his former business partner in the drug business, and an ugly, ill-mannered brute of a dog called Little Brother. Questions: What in the world can Clive do with all that money in a place as small and remote as Cold Storage? What happens when the business partner decides he needs the money more than Clive? Why is Clive hearing animals talk to him? And why is he listening to their advice? Waiting for Clive in Cold Storage is his older brother, Miles, the town's medic, war hero, and a pragmatic man who yet prays to his outboard motor.

Wherever you think John Straley's newest novel will go, trust me on this: it won't. But where it does go is never less than delightful, turning the crime genre's tropes inside out. Straley writes in prose that is closer to poetry - but never pretentious and not strictly lyrical poetry. Call it prose with a poetic resonance. Cold Storage is populated with characters at once memorable, affable, pathetic, real, and sometimes maddening. No doubt there are readers who will draw parallels to the populace of Northern Exposure, though that show held little appeal for me as the quirkiness of its residents seemed to me to be more affectation for the sake of audience than that of three-dimensional characters. Quirky the people of Straley's Cold Storage may occasionally be, but they are never less than real, with their struggles, their dreams, their failures and modest successes, and their binding sense of community that lightly overlays their fierce if sometimes false self-reliance.

The author overtly yet subtly (how does he do that?) works varying religious viewpoints into a cohesive but elusive blend that both humbles and amuses the reader. While the overriding quality of this book is a rare kind of Zen charm, Straley is far too good a writer not to ensure that depth of setting (think Shangri-la without the humbuggery), character, and plot are all present and in abundance.

COLD STORAGE, ALASKA is a gem of story, marvelously told, that repays the reader many times over for the reading. Only February, I know, but this book will certainly be on my year-end favorites list.


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