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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Big Both Ways (trade, $16.95), by John Straley

This book really should begin, “Once upon a time,” and continue, “in the not so distant past, in the still wild Pacific Northwest.” The Big Both Ways is a gift to those of us who live here, surrounded by reminders of what strong characters and iron wills carved out places to live in America’s last frontier.

John Straley, a well-regarded author for his contemporary series starring private investigator Cecil Younger in Sitka, Alaska, has just released The Big Both Ways, a novel set in 1935 during the Depression and in midst of the management vs. labor turmoil of the docking, mining, and logging industries of the Pacific Northwest.

Did those of you raised in the Pacific Northwest learn in school about Wobblies, trade unionists, labor spies, and the massacres in Everett and Centralia, Washington? I wasn't raised here, so I had to stop reading the book about thirty pages into it and look up all those subjects in "Wikipedia." Eventually Straley leads the reader into a deeper understanding of the different groups involved, but I was afloat without a Ketchikan paddle at the beginning.

To summarize: jobs were scarce, labor was cheap, people were starving. When mud pies laced with salt and oil provide psychological sustenance for people in need of physical sustenance, times must be really low. There were no safety laws protecting workers in very dangerous situations. Labor unions linked to specific industries sprang up in an attempt to rectify both the working conditions and pay for the workers. The IWW (sometimes labeled “anarchists,” “socialists,” or “Reds”) fed into the mix with its attempt to bind all workers into rising up in favor of industries without rulers. Labor spies were everywhere, and the law was sometimes hamstrung by its own corruption or lack of jurisdiction.

It is into this period that Straley places Slip Wilson, a logger who quits his job (which gets snapped up immediately by the next in the long line of gaunt, beaten men waiting for any job to open up), Ellie Hobbes, a Wobblie rabblerouser, and her young niece Annabelle. The Big Both Ways is a tale of coincidences and fate. Slip has quit to pursue his dream of owning a quiet farm with a quiet family. Instead, he meets Ellie, a woman with a car and a dead body in its trunk. Soon there is another dead body, a young niece, and a yellow bird to tote along. We really don’t learn much more than this, given the taciturn natures of all the characters. They don’t ask questions and they don’t volunteer information. You, the reader, are left to scream in silence, “What’s going on?”

Slip, Ellie, and Annabelle, in various combinations and with other temporary companions, leapfrog up the Pacific Coast, chased by George Hanson, a Seattle police detective, who ostensibly is trying to apprehend the murderers of the aforementioned dead bodies. As the various characters stop in ports both small and large, Straley depicts the life and culture of the times with care and understanding. He is diligent always to snare a bit of optimism along with his glimpses of a moribund world.

For fans of Robinson Crusoe and the children’s classic The Boxcar Children, there’s a satisfying element of do-it-yourself or fend-for-yourself. Other than hunters and the contestants of “Survivor,” would most of us 21st-century souls be able to skin and gut a lamb? Straley tutors us in navigating the Inland Passage as Annabelle clambers on a box to be able to see over the steering wheel of a boat she learns to wend past rocks and whirlpools and through incoming and departing tides. Landlubber Slip suffers blisters and aching muscles as he haphazardly teaches himself how to skipper a dory northward. At one point Straley describes a cycle-of-life moment in a scene of great beauty -- and practicality -- as his characters witness whales, salmon, and seagulls feeding.

But this is not a fairytale or children’s cozy, Skip and Ellie are beaten and mangled more times than all of Dick Francis’ protagonists put together. Some of the villains are meaner than snakes’ teeth. Straley’s tone is noir-ish, especially with the spare dialogue, reticent natures of the main characters, and preference for action over cerebral interplay.

It is worth it for the reader to hang in there through the eddying strands of the first chapters and the push and pull (the “big both ways”) of the confusing loyalties of the characters and their relationships with each other to follow what turns out to be a great and rewarding adventure.

minister. The heady realization that he will be meeting and getting to intimately know the controversial ex-prime minister, not to mention the hefty paycheck, gives the acerbic, unnamed (appropriately so, don't you think) narrator a cause for celebration … until things start to go wrong.

Imagine Tony Blair charged with crimes against humanity in a world court for aiding and abetting the capture of alleged terrorists in Pakistan, who are then shipped to a U.S. military compound where they are tortured. Substitute "Adam Lang" for Tony Blair, and you have yourself the inspiration for this Robert Harris novel.

At first I was excited: the narrator was witty, sarcastic, sophisticated. The narrative flowed with verve and seemed full of insider looks at publishing. Because a book cannot exist with just the fun stuff showing, we had to eventually meet "the conspiracy." The narrator's ghostwriter predecessor supposedly committed suicide during a ferry ride to Martha's Vineyard, leading, of course, to all sorts of double entendres involving the word "ghost." In continuing his research, the new ghost stumbles across his predecessor's research that indicates the prime minister's rise to power and term in office may not have been all it seemed. Which leads to a frightening assumption that perhaps his predecessor's death may not have been all it seemed. It is after the narrator adjourns into incipient paranoia that the book ceases to fulfill the promise of its beginning. But as well as Harris is capable of creating a chilling scenario and as probable as the ending may eventually turn out to be, I nevertheless found the resolution to be ludicrous.

It may surprise you that I suggest you read it: for the humor, for the wit, for the promise of what could have been.

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