When I arrived in Alaska in 1982 I was reading the nonfiction bestseller, Going to Extremes, the cover of which announced that author, Joe McGinniss "shows us the Alaska he experienced---preposterous, glorious, grasping and about ten sizes bigger than life." McGinniss was faulted for focusing on the grotesque: food riots in the oil field work camps over lobster shortages; an "oiled T-shirt" contest in Valdez at the pipeline opening. They were the kinds of surprising things that undermined the widespread and more comfortable, fuzzy sled dogs and moose antlers imagery usually associated with the 49th State. But I was thirty-four years old, starting my life over again and itching for something new to do, and I wanted to be surprised.
I needed a truck when I got here, and while perusing the local classified ads, I found, listed under the heading "Recreational Vehicles," a D-9 bulldozer for sale. Now that was surprising. Other memories from that time include a sign on a motel room door admonishing guests DO NOT CLEAN CLAMS IN YOUR ROOM! and a news story about a woman on her honeymoon who walked out onto the Turnagain Arm mud flats and perished in quicksand on a rising tide. This sounded like my kind of place.
What I didn't know was that, while I was busy marveling at the idea of living in a state where brides got sucked into sea water, hotel bathtubs bulged with bivalves, and men playfully drove forty-nine ton diesel powered machines around their front yards, there was a guy in Anchorage named Ronald Spatz quietly doing something "preposterous, glorious, and (undeniably) grasping." He was launching what would become one of the premier literary magazines in the world: Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR). What I also didn't know was that I would have a small part in this adventure. And even when I did become involved (first as a student intern, then as an associate editor), I had no clue that I had signed on to something truly "at least ten times bigger than life."
How big? Well, don't take my word for it. Consider this coincidence: this week's New Yorker (July 23, 2007) features a story by Antonya Nelson, now an established name in serious contemporary fiction, but who, when she appeared in AQR in the spring of 1991, was far less well known. A few weeks ago, the New Yorker fiction was by Stuart Dybek, who appeared in Volume 13 of AQR in 1994, a particularly strong issue which also included work by the world renown Grace Paley, and stories by (among yet others) Patricia Hampl, Amy Hempel, Susan Minot and J. Robert Lennon; and by frequent AQR contributor Edith Pearlman, who, again coincidentally, is featured in the current Best American Short Story Award Anthology. And that was all in one AQR issue!
There is not nearly enough room here to do justice to the talent showcased in AQR over the past two and a half decades. Nor is there room to describe all the awards and accolades bestowed on AQR itself: a subject for another, longer essay. And all of this in a state, geographically as far off the literary map as Mercator projection allows. Now that's "preposterous, glorious....." et cetera.
Look, I am not objective about AQR. I admit it. But it is a fact, not my opinion, that now, twenty-five years later, I can hardly pickup a major magazine or anthology without stumbling upon names I once saw on manuscripts that had fluttered in over the transom when I was a screening reader. I'll also admit that I get great pleasure from that.
To see those names now attached to O. Henry awards; to hear them come to life in interviews on National Public Radio when their novels win National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes; to walk up to a now established writer at a conference and say, "I was the first reader of your manuscript back in 1989....." and have the pleasure of knowing I did the right thing by passing it on to executive editor Spatz for further consideration ... well, it's all so weirdly Alaskan.
You see, AQR, in it's own, almost perverse way is ultimately Alaskan in it's resolute refusal to be predictably Alaskan. You will find no fuzzy dog team stories; very few moose antler poems. The fact that it was born here is at least as surprising as a lobster instigated food riot, or an oiled T-shirt contest; the fact that it is still ten sizes bigger than life a quarter century later goes beyond the hyperbole of the Joe McGinnis cover blurb altogether. It's simply not what you might expect in Alaska. Unless, of course, you are expecting Alaska to surprise you. So I say, happy anniversary to AQR. Being a part of it was like getting away with walking on quicksand in a wedding gown or cleaning a couple dozen clams in the bathroom of an Embassy Suites. Twenty-five years later, I can open the current issue and, once again, I know what it must feel like to drive a bulldozer of your very own.