Imagine Cormac McCarthy’s writing minus the arrogance, and you have Seth Kantner: lots of clipped dialogue about wolves, combined with a boy narrator who at the age of five can knowledgeably describe a man as being “muscled in the forearms in the way of a skinned wolverine.” But novelist Kantner allows the narrator of Ordinary Wolves, Cutuk Hawcly, an agonizing self-consciousness that makes him humble and generally lovable. While we’re treated to many precise descriptions of snow and cold, of the Arctic landscape and its animals, the shivering uncertainty in this Caucasian boy in an Eskimo world is as clearly drawn as the most detailed rendition of a gutted caribou or a circling wolf.
Cutuk lives in an igloo in “the arctic part of Alaska that our mail-order schoolbooks called barren icy desert.” His mother long ago abandoned the family, and Cutuk lives in near-total isolation with his two older siblings and their father, Abe. His hero is Enuk Wolfglove, an Eskimo hunter and friend of Abe’s who lives downriver in the Iñupiaq village of Takunak. Cutuk longs to be a hunter but longs even more to be Eskimo; his blue eyes and blond hair shame him to the point that he romanticizes Enuk’s black frostbite scars and refuses to answer to Clayton, his “white” name.
To be white in the world of Ordinary Wolves is to be an outsider. What it means to be Eskimo is multifaceted; the flipside of the wise, dignified Enuk Wolfglove is the Lysol-drinking, snowmobile-driving, TV-watching younger generation, and in this world there is no shortage of rape or domestic violence or bullying of white kids like Cutuk. One of the most interesting aspects of Kantner’s novel is its understated exploration of racism as experienced by, of all things, a white male. Eskimos are allowed credit at the town store while whites are not, and Cutuk marinates in shame as he watches his father pay with cash. On their once-a-winter trip to town, Cutuk is immediately surrounded by Iñupiaq boys and asked, “You’re naluagmiu [white], huh?” and then, “You wanna ﬁght?”
Between the ﬁghts, hunting, skinning, and gutting, the first half of the book ends up full of, well — a lot of guy stuff. I’m not a guy. As vivid and elegant as Kantner’s description of a skinned wolf may be — “On our ﬂoor the naked wolf grinned permanently in the weak lamplight, his teeth and tendons white against dark red muscles. The stomach was hard, and fetid smells were beginning to come out” — I can take only so much of that before the urge to read some Alice Munro becomes overwhelming.
But Kantner has a big payoff waiting for the reader in the second half of the book, and I’m glad I didn’t miss out on it. When Cutuk moves to Anchorage, the effect is nearly psychedelic. All those pages of snow, silence, and wolf tracks suddenly stand in delicious contrast as Cutuk — who has never so much as ridden in a car — views the city: “Everything had words. Flashing words. As if someone had cut up a magazine, glued it on the sky.”
A woman’s made-up eyes are “silvery as smashed moths.” Kantner’s descriptions throughout the book stay close to the bones of outdoor northern Alaska, the language intrinsic to Cutuk’s world as opposed to being glued on to it, but it’s not until that language is applied to Cutuk’s perception of the city that we realize how capable an author Seth Kantner is.
In the end Cutuk gains at least a slippery grip on his identity before returning to Takunak, ready to take on challenges other than the one that has propelled him through the book: the struggle not to hate himself. Nothing is neatly wrapped about the ending; it’s as natural, and as satisfying, as one season melting into the next.