Alaska is a place of extremes: geography, isolation, weather—even daylight. These extremes sit at the center of Leigh Newman’s new story collection Nobody Gets Out Alive, as the collection probes the limitations and impact of the unique environment. Alaska serves as a common thread linking the narratives and defines the collection.
Newman’s 2013 memoir Still Points North followed her childhood experiences growing up in the wilds of the state. Nobody Gets Out Alive contains both stories exploring similar themes like girlhood in the wilderness, while other stories probe further afield like “An Extravaganza in Two Acts” about the early 20th century founding and construction of a town in Alaska. Across these stories, Newman reiterates the isolation of the place, both as a metaphor and as a physical distance.
The collection shares a pool of characters who come and go, but the stories otherwise stand on their own. The characters are deeply crafted and filled with complexity. While their reappearances extend their individual histories, even when contained within a single story, we see multiple dimensions: good and bad, flaws and strengths. We spend the most time with Katrina who recurs across many of the narratives, both when she is a girl and later as an adult. She starts off as the protagonist, but then in later stories, as the narrative point of view shifts, she becomes an antagonist, and eventually part of the ensemble. Katrina feels like Newman’s version of Nick Adams or Nathan Zuckerman, the recurring heroes of Hemingway and Roth, who both reflect their creators while simultaneously living lives they never did.
Geography serves to link the stories, and the isolation of Alaska causes tension throughout the collection. Several stories unfold in the lower forty-eight states, but they always connect back to the north. The distance serves as a source of conflict: to leave, to arrive, to travel to Alaska are all essential to the experience of the place. Katrina eventually leaves, for instance, and ends up working in New York City. She works in futures, a finance career tied indirectly to Alaska through oil. In essence she is growing wealthy by exploiting the state from afar.
In “Valley of the Moon,” Jaime has fled for Oregon, where she has built a life far away from the dysfunction of her parents, and the distance between Portland and Alaska provides space for her to thrive. She is the founder of a shoe accessory company. Still, both Katrina and Jaime are tethered to the distant state. For Jaime, she returns pregnant after a falling out with her wife, dragged back to Alaska by the needs of her aging mother.
Katrina, meanwhile, in the collection’s title story, returns to the state to introduce her husband Carter to the people she grew up with, and to her father. Here Katrina observes, “Your average happy person didn’t last in Alaska.” Katrina and Carter attend a party hosted by Neil who, even though he is married, has unresolved emotions directed toward Katrina. Newman dives into a narrative reminiscent of the themes Raymond Carver regularly confronts: unhappy married couples yelling while drunk. Unhappiness runs through this collection, almost as if Alaska by its very essence is the catalyst of misery.
Mothers in Newman’s collection suffer particular terrible fates. In “Howl Place,” Dutch prepares to sell the home she spent her life in, a dilapidated structure the next buyer is sure to tear down. The land, rather than the house, has value. The new owners will erase her history, her experiences in the place. The one special feature of the home is her wolf room. It is filled with pelts she hunted—but it was meant as a baby nursery. Dutch lost her baby, and shortly after her uterus was removed without her consent.
Dutch is not the only mother to suffer loss. The narrator in “Our Family Fortune-Teller” aborted her child. Katrina’s mother abandons her and the family. Jaime’s mother divorced her father, ended up living next door, and in the end needs long-term care provided by Jaime’s younger sister, Becca. Even when Jaime returns under duress from Portland, she is visibly pregnant. At a restaurant with Becca, Jaime orders a bottle of wine, only to earn a dirty look from the waitress. Becca notes “A record-setting number of babies are born in our state with fetal alcohol syndrome,” suggesting the challenges of motherhood even beyond the characters we meet. Motherhood is a perilous occupation in Alaska, a place that threatens death almost constantly.
Newman cultivates an otherness about the state. We are meant to see it as a foreign place, exotic with weirdness and quirks. Houses require electric fences to keep out bears, moose attack trash bins, and locals fly small airplanes wherever they go. These details captivate us with their weirdness, so different from the suburban landscapes of the mainland where homeowners face the occasional racoon digging through their trash, and people drive sport utility vehicles for comfort rather than necessity.
One irony of this othering is that these stories focus on white characters. Native people are rarely encountered except as background. A native woman is mentioned in passing, the victim of sexual assault, but only as she and the assualt relate to the white characters. These stories focus on transplants, people who relocated to the state in their lifetime, or who descended from the fortune seekers relocated there looking to suck wealth from the land, the oil, gold, fish and other riches.
If there is a moral here, it is that the outsiders of Alaska are attracted by their desire to exploit the place arriving to seize the land and resources and the people. By extension, it seems, this exploitation has a corrupting influence on every aspect of their lives. The cost they pay is their happiness. As the title of the collection suggests, nobody is able to get out alive.
In Nobody Gets Out Alive, Leigh Newman has crafted a collection of stories set in a deeply unique place with compelling narratives about the people who live at the remote edge of the world. The collection highlights the pain and challenges of such a life, while constructing a rich depiction of the place.
Nobody Gets Out Alive
by Leigh Newman
Scribner Book Company
Published April 12th, 2022
Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in 2022. His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Offing, Electric Literature, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He serves as the Deputy Editor of The Rumpus, holds an MA in English from Rutgers University, tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com.