“Doesn’t quite live up to the hype” – The Seaplane on Final Approach by Rebecca Rukeyser

IMG_2022-5-29-192628Mira is an eighteen-year-old high-school flunkey from California who’s taken a summer job as a baker and housekeeper at a tourist-trap homestead on a remote Alaskan island. Now, Mira’s not new to Alaska’s shores: she spent the summer of her junior year on a similar island with her aunt because her parents hoped the wholesome outdoorsy lifestyle would do something for her ‘dissolute’ nature. Mira’s not so much dissolute, though, as directionless, and over the course of the summer in her aunt’s cabin, she nurtures two obsessions: a passion for her aunt’s fisherman stepson, Ed, and a fixation on the concept of sleaze. A year later, back in Alaska, she’s determined to nail down exactly what sleaze is, and in doing so, prepare herself for tracking down and seducing Ed, and setting up home with him in the town of Kodiak after this summer is over. In actuality, alongside the monosyllabic Chef and two other teenage employees (both of whom are in love with Stu), she ends up a bit player in the marital breakdown of the homesteader couple, Stu and Maureen.

This book has everything going for it in terms of tension: remote location (claustrophobia) replete with physical danger (the bears, the freezing water, the weather) and rampant hormones (the cooped-up teens; the distanced couple). It’s clear from the offset that Mira’s dreams of a glorious future with Ed are unlikely to pan out, and as the novel progresses, the focus is trained more squarely on Maureen and Stu and the impending im- or explosion of their relationship as Stu gets close to Mira’s colleague, Erin. The repetitive nature of both the tourist industry (the upbeat sales-patter, the cyclical entertainment activities, the planned-out daily routines and weekly menus and chore assignations) structures both Mira’s life on the island and also the book itself; as the crisis point nears and this order begins to break down, so too does Mira’s surety about her own future. It’s a quick read (plenty of white space) and an atmospheric one: the setting itself is intriguing for readers not familiar with the far north, but it’s the intensity of the homestead, rather than Alaska itself, that is most compelling. How do you keep secrets when you’re living in each other’s pockets? How do you hold a marriage together through middle age with only transient employees and tourists to talk to? What’s the difference between obsession and love?

The Maureen/Stu relationship is the fulcrum of the novel; when it goes down, so does everything else, and this domino collapse, coming on the back of the detailed accretion of a repetitive routine, is a joy to read. The book creeps and then gallops; the pacing here is gloriously panicked. Not everything is quite so successful: Mira’s fixation on sleaze (as a concept, rather than anything she actually does) feels comparatively forced, more like a younger child’s preoccupation, as does her comparative lack of interest in the developing Stu-Erin situation. Mira notes more than once the tragedy of Maureen’s situation – doomed by simple age, no matter how beautiful she is – and Rukeyser has to be commended for the lack of sentimentality with which she presents this character; Maureen is unpleasant and controlling, and this impression is thoroughly consistent with Mira’s age. After all, what eighteen-year-old will root for the aging matriarch? All the same, a little more Maureen would not have gone astray; much like in (my reading of) Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, the more interesting characters get less airtime than the teens, who feel comparatively one-dimensional. Similarly, Mira’s speculations, or perhaps foretellings, of everyone’s futures fall somewhat flat. While the idea of projected futures fits in well with the bildungsroman nature of the novel, and while Mira’s pondering about the nature of fantasy and memory fits in well with this, these interludes puncture the building menace in a way that’s not the most useful in a novel that’s mostly driven by that same menace.

Any Cop?: It’s a good read that, while it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, would definitely keep most readers entertained.

Valerie O’Riordan

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