Arctic Smoke: A weird punk mystery of a book I barely scraped through

I’ve become something of a scholar of books written by people who’ve spent time in the Arctic. 

Er, make that people who’ve spent time living and working in the Arctic. 

I’m fascinated by how people process the experience — the things they’ve learned, the people they’ve met. Some are marked by gratitude — I’ll put Armin Wiebe’s Tatsea in that category, a book I believe was meant as a gift to the Tlicho (I may be reading into this; I tend to do that). Others don’t go much past the oddness of the experience (like The Song Beneath the Ice, where a Toronto concert pianist flees north and finds a weirder but richer life). Still others take the subject of their work and mull and twist it until they have a story that in some way pays off this experience: I’m thinking specifically of Kevin Patterson’s Consumption

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I’d never heard of Randy Nikkel Schroeder, but since this diaspora of former Arctic staff is a large one, I was eager to read his interpretation. 

Unfortunately there’s nothing to see here. The plot outlined on the back cover — addled man rejoins punk band for Arctic tour — is barely discernible. When a mysterious CSIS agent emerged, about twenty pages in, I began to skim, faster and faster, catching only a large amount of the following: haunted hotels, witches, God, Church, the death metal scene in Lethbridge, Alta., a magic powder, birds, snow globes and strippers (one named “Dawn Cherry”). 

How does the North appear in this book? 

Page 163: “Yellowknife was less forbidding than Lor expected — well-treed, civilized, nestled along the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, Darci slowed the Camaro and rumbled up Ptarmigan Road to tiny Rat Lake, where the Potiphar Hotel subbed the hills with a matrix of columns and porticoes, sweating warm light and clinks of suppertime.” 

After some musty dialog about God, the band decides to drive up the frozen Mackenzie River to Inuvik. 

I skimmed faster, pausing to take in the listed acts in a talent show in Inuvik (“the Qingnatuq twins and word was a boy-genius storyteller would make an appearance, one Zephaniah Tookalook of Nunavut”) and the quotes from, of all people, Stephen Harper, that open each section. 

But those seem to have nothing to do with anything. 

At the back of this book, Nikkel Schroeder, who is a professor of English, Cultures and Languages at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, sets out to explain himself. He describes his book as an homage to nineties rebellion, and also punk rock, but says it’s really rooted in a thought experiment proposed by a friend: “Like, what if a punk band had to tour the Arctic?”

“I began to consider the projections of ‘northerness’ [I cannot explain the missing ‘n’ in that word; it’s driving me nuts] so common to generic fantasy. In maps of Narnia and Middle Earth, south is generally the geography of the swarthy and diminished human. East, in Narnia, is the geography of exploration and the unrevealed or redeemed. West, in Middle Earth, serves much the same function. But north — north is consistently the embodiment of wonder, mythological power, and romanticized ‘wilderness’.”

The next paragraph takes us back to punk culture wars and Norwegian churches. 

Thanks, but not recommending this one. 

Arctic Smoke
By Randy Nikkel Schroeder
NeWest Press, 2019
290 pages

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