This earnest debut novel, winner of the Bellwether Prize for “fiction of social responsibility,” wavers along the fine line between the true-to-life and dull-as-ditchwater.
Narrator-hero Gus Traynor, 50ish editor of an alternative newspaper in Fairbanks, Alaska, wrestles with ecological issues, the paper’s dwindling circulation and imminent insolvency and his shy passion for a single mother from a native village. Cole’s depiction of Alaska is not of the natural beauty viewed from cruise ships, but of a land menaced by clear-cutting and bad legislation, with a native population plagued by poverty and substance abuse. Traynor’s humility and integrity make him a likable fellow, but he is given to embarrassing clichés—“the notion of running a newspaper took hold of me like a flower blooming in my soul”—and for the first three quarters of the novel, he simply putters around town. He watches a friend’s New Age girlfriend carve an ice sculpture; he participates in a community drive to pick up trash. He hires an itinerant Irish poet, who “couldn’t quite get the hope out of his face” to write features, that may in part explain the paper’s insolvency. It is a work by this fictional poet, Felix Heaven, which gives the book its title. The poem—and Cole makes a fine job of it—describes the arrogant statues erected to honor various lords and conquerors, and celebrates the “necessary correction” of pulling them down. The work spurs Traynor and a land-developer friend to get tough with a “First Family” sculpture, described as “pointlessly huge,” in a Fairbanks plaza. Cole’s determination to withhold the easy pleasures of fiction, the drama of a driving plot, juicy relationships, happy endings—in favor of workaday inconclusiveness, and the unromantic problems of real life, is admirably mature.
The trouble is that, having forsaken certain pleasures, Cole’s work offers only the soberest and most intermittent glimmer of any other reward.