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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