Cesar, the seventeen-year-old narrator of Mattox Roesch‘s first novel, Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same, is badly in need of a change of scenery when the book opens. Cesar has grown up in Los Angeles with his Eskimo mother and white father, and he and his older brother have joined Hispanic gangs. “We were those chameleon kids who almost blended in but never quite did,” Cesar observes. Cesar’s mother decides to leave his father and L.A. behind after his brother is sent to prison for murdering two 15-year-olds who were trying to leave his gang. She moves with Cesar to the village she left twenty years earlier, Unalakleet, Alaska (the same village where Roesch currently lives with his family).
Cesar is focused on earning enough money to return to L.A., but his cousin, the exuberant Go-boy, does everything he can to convince him to stay. Through Cesar’s eyes, Roesch creates a richly detailed portrait of this town—from its plywood buildings, to its annual salmon counts, to a common malady known as “seal finger”—that is authentic and refreshingly unlike any typical depiction of Alaska.
Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same is instantly appealing in part because it combines several classic fiction tropes: There’s the “stranger comes to town” set-up, a first-person narrator who reports the activities of a larger-than-life main character (a formula that worked for The Great Gatsby, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and countless other novels), and even a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back love story. Add to these elements the distinctive setting and characters in a small Alaska village, complete with its own unusual vocabulary, and Roesch has written a winner.
At first, Cesar doesn’t find the village promising. As he reports, Go-boy “shows me the post office, AC Store, Native Store, Igloo, the lodge, and a bunch of other plywood buildings with tin roofs. There are no signs or advertisements, no trees or grass lawns, and the houses are crowded under empty grids of telephone poles. It’s the ugliest place I’ve ever seen.”
But then Cesar meets the fetching Kiana, and the village begins to look better to him. “I was taken by her striking cheekbones,” he reflects, “how high and chiseled they were under her mysterious, almost sad eyes. She had a face with the strength and danger of a hundred-foot cliff.” Inverting the typical love story scenario, Kiana and Cesar get drunk and sleep together the first night they meet. Kiana turns out to be Go-boy’s adopted sister and her relationship with Cesar quickly sours; Cesar spends much of the rest of the book trying to win back her favor.
Go-boy does everything he can to make Cesar feel at home in the village, and helps him get a summer job working at a fish counting station where they look down from a tower and record the salmon rushing by in the water. Go-boy knows his fish, but Cesar is terrible at it, unable to distinguish between different types of salmon. “I had never thought about fish before we’d moved here,” Cesar reports, “But in rural Alaska fish was money…People woke up in the morning for fish. People stayed up all night for fish. There were jobs catching them and cutting them, jobs weighting them and shipping them. All for fish.”
As Cesar settles in to village life, Go-boy’s enthusiasm grows into something loonier, as his theories about religion and philosophy become increasingly disconnected from reality, he disappears for weeks at a time, publicly and incessantly declares his love for his ex-girlfriend, and begins to write letters to Yoko Ono. Like a lot of seventeen-year-old boys, Cesar is not always likeable—he’s selfish, even cruel at times, and he committed a reprehensible crime during his gangbanging days that he never fully owns up to. But he rises to the challenge of what increasingly looks like mental illness that Go-boy is suffering from.
Many parts of Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same first appeared as short stories in magazines such as The Missouri Review, Narrative, and Redivider, and the only small quibble with this fine novel is that sometimes this earlier structure shows. The chapters often proceed backwards, beginning with a statement about something that’s already taken place, then jump into the past to explain how this happened, such as, “The day I got suspended from school, Go-boy was at home designing some crazy envelope that he claimed was our ticket to heaven.” While these in medias res beginnings are perfect for stories, in a novel the effect is sometimes herky-jerky.
The vivid rural Alaska setting, which Roesch describes through all Cesar’s senses, serves to orient the reader and makes Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same a promising debut by a writer who is sure to have more interesting things to say.
Mattox Roesch will read from his novel in Portland, Oreg. at Annie Bloom’s books on Thursday, September 10 (7:30 p.m.), and he’ll appear at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow the following day. Roesch will read at Neptune Coffee in Seattle on September 17 (7 p.m.) and at Village Books in Bellingham, Wash. on September 18 (7 p.m.).