Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

Your hunt for the most boring Wikipedia entry ever ends now. Type “Yellowknife” in the search box, and you’ll hear the gurgle as the spirit is sucked out of one of the most intriguing cities on the planet.

I mention Wikipedia because most non-Canadian readers of Steve Zipp’s debut novel Yellowknife will in all likelihood want need to look the city up. So, here are some facts about Yellowknife before I begin my review.

First, a map of Canada.  Yellowknife is just above the big black C.

Political Divisions

(This map is available at http://atlas.nrcan.gc.ca/site/english/index.html)

Yellowknife is the capital of the NorthWest Territories. The NorthWest Territories are almost twice the size of France. The population of the NorthWest Territories is about 41,000 people. All together now: Looonely!

In the 1930s, sizable gold deposits were discovered in Yellowknife, leading to a mini gold rush. The rush waned towards the end of the century, but save your sympathy for the Yellowknifers; in the early nineties, the area turned up diamonds. The city now calls itself “The Diamond Capital of North America.”

And in what is possibly the most redundant sentence in Canadian prose, I add that Yellowknife is very cold.

***

Steve Zipp’s Yellowknife is set in the eponymous city in 1998. It’s a delirious read, one that incorporates the region’s history into a truly zany storyline. Endeavoring to describe the plot any further is akin to eating soup with a fork–you get some bits and pieces, but miss the main meal. Picking up my spork: The book features an entomologist who offers his arm for mosquito bait, a conceptual artist who wanders around garbage dumps, a drifter who learns to live off dog food, and about twenty other oddball characters who come together to do their thing in Yellowknife.

And what a city it is, in a region “so remote it’s almost mythical.” A restaurant menu in Yellowknife might include fried ptarmigan, sweet and sour bearpaw, scrambled caribou brains on toast, and detoxified bear liver.  There’s an annual  Caribou Carnival, where activities include tea boiling and log sawing; people sip frosty drinks “in glasses made of ice.” The local newspaper is called the Yellowknife Blade. A posh restaurant accepts diamonds in lieu of cash; waiters carry loupes on their person. Zipp assumes the reader is familiar with the region (or has a huge vocabulary); I for one had to look up “pomarine jaeger” (a sea bird),  mukluks (a type of boot), horsetails (a plant)…you get the idea.  At least I knew   Zamboni, thanks to my years in Canada.

The real joy in this novel, however, lies in the sharp, acerbic writing. Zipp quotes from Kafka, Jack London and Bulgakov, amongst others, and his prose is notable as much for its intelligence as its humor. You read it here first: Zipp is blood brother to Tom Robbins.  There are many interesting and erudite passages to showcase; it is purely a function of this reviewer’s base mind that the quoted section deals with sex (or its lack thereof).

Danny the drifter finally has a chance to get it off with the most beautiful woman in our dimension. But then she asks if he has a condom.

The answer was plain on his face. She might as well have been asking for a condominium. “Christ” she muttered and reached for her clothes
“No, wait, I can find something. A plastic bag. A rubber glove.”

No luck. Danny then tries to salvage the situation.

“No problem…I’ll pick some up tomorrow….Do you have a favorite brand?…Any particular color or flavor?”

yellow

If I have one quibble, it is that Yellowknife sometimes feels like too much of a good thing. It’s as though Zipp had a hundred great ideas, and he shoehorned them all into this 286-page book. The resulting read is breathless though manageable, but it gets sticky when it comes to the characters. There are so many appealing dramatis personae vying for the role of protagonist that ultimately, I wasn’t truly invested in any character. Just as I got into Danny’s adventures, bam! a new character squealing “Forget Danny, look at me!” would cavort on the page. I suppose I could have treated the book like the aforementioned soup and just enjoyed whatever came along, but I kept getting distracted, wondering where that tempting piece of pineapple lurked, and if the spongy object I was chewing on was a mushroom or a pellet of Bounty…

It is a sad, sad thing that Zipp’s novel, published by the small press Res Telluris, should languish in obscurity. I do not know the author (apart from exchanging a brief email correspondence regarding the timing of this review) and I have no hesitation in flogging his work in every possible way. Here is the publisher’s website, and here is the author’s blog. Do buy the book. Or, if you must, download it for FREE from the publisher’s site. And don’t forget to send Zipp a mash note asking him to write another novel real soon.

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11 responses to “Yellowknife by Steve Zipp

  1. What a beautifully written review! The book sounds absolutely fascinating, and I would love to read about this place that I probably will never visit. I will do my bit to ensure that the book does not languish in obscurity – I will certainly get a copy and spread the word. I have the greatest respect and admiration for writers – and so will not download a free copy as a token of that respect.
    Thanks for sharing this with us. I am really looking forward to reading and enjoying this book

  2. @ Kamini: Thanks! Am so glad you’ve decided to buy the book; do let me know what you think of it.

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  4. Good review.

    I just finished reading the book — I had bought it Whitehorse on a whim, shortly after having driven through NWT (not Yellowknife though). It was an amazing drive through a vast imposing landscape and very few fuel stops as we held on tight to the scarce strings of gravel roads which finally led us back to BC and Alaska Highway. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, and Zipp’s book really catches this sort of feeling in his characters.

    I can’t wait to go back and explore the remaining undriven roads, must be the metal filings.

  5. @ M: Thanks!I think Zipp captures the other-worldly nature of the place very well, both in his descriptions of the region and in his characters.
    I love your image “scarce strings of gravel roads”, btw. Makes me want to hare off to NWT.

  6. I ashamed to admit that Steve sent me a copy of his book (no strings attached) when he discovered me as a fellow Canadian book blogger in 2007. I did not get around to reading it. I read a great deal but only review a few of the books I read. Every review of this book I’ve seen has been very good so I will take the hint and get to it this year. And I do the Canadian Reading Challenges so I have no more excuses not to. Glad to see this book get reviewed.

  7. This review is great. Unfortunately, most of the book is entirely fictional. I hate to disillusion the romantics but while Yellowknife may once have been pretty quirky, now it’s just a small town with a few restaurants that sometimes serve buffalo. We even have WallMart. (And it’s March and one degree C.)

  8. @ Sandra: You chould definitely check it out, esp. now that it’s been shortlisted for Canada also reads.

    @ Lana: Okay, the Walmart news is pretty disheartening. But positive temperatures in March are reason to celebrate even for romantics, I think?
    Thanks for visiting and commenting!

  9. No, Yellowknife is pretty damn quirky. I just moved here and yeah, there’s a Walmart, but it’s as if the place is managed by David Lynch. This place is VERY Twin Peaks.

    Thanks for the review: I stumbled on this while trying to research “Tea Boiling.” I mean, that’s a THING here, apparently.

    • Glad you liked the review. And I’m very pleased to have stumbled upon your blog via your comment. Please please write about your local Wal-martians and other Yellowknife THINGS.

  10. Liked the review, read the first chapter on the publisher’s website. Recommend it highly!

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