Moe Bowstern – Second Set Out
2003, 48 pages, $3
That eye-catching blue-green cover really jumped out at me from Pressed‘s increasingly cramped zine rack the other day, as did the promise of “stories of being a female fisherman” so I scooped it up for a mere $3. The zine has a foreword by legendary (occasionally maritime) science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, which tipped me off that Bowstern’s a bit more established than most of the zines I’ve read to date, and indeed, it turns out Second Set Out is a sort of “best of” her writing from 1993 – 2003.
The bulk of these stories are anecdotes from her seasonal work as a skiffwoman and her improvised journeys across America, peppered with a few fictions and a sewing how-to. At its best, Second Set Out does what only the strongest perzines can do: involve the reader in the writer’s life as a companion. It helps that hers happens to be a fairly interesting sort of life. As both a Portland hipster and an Alaskan fisherman, Bowstern straddles two worlds, and it’s this unique mix of life experiences that makes her voice so interesting. Her work stories have the tough, swaggering humour of hard labourers, but it’s tempered by her position as a writer and as a woman in a male-dominated trade. These differences mean she is something of an outsider, a position she shares with the reader. It means she can laugh as boisterously as anyone at the antics of her acquaintance Rick, a drunk whose practical jokes include slipping a coworker’s severed finger into his launderman’s jacket pocket; it means also that she can step back to notice how, after having later become a dull abstaining Christian, Rick’s new companion watches his every move like “someone out with a formerly vicious dog.”
Reading Bowstern’s stories of rural Alaska, with its generous, companionable people and grey horizons of boredom and despair made that isolated state feel real to me for the first time. With her preferred method of travel (hitchhiking) and accommodation (couch surfing), she is able to write from the perspective of a guest in these people’s homes, with real familiarity:
“Ana Helena offered Darby thirty dollars to rent his car to take me to Homer. Darby agreed immediately, but said he’d have to start it for us because it was having some trouble. […] Darby tried starting it. The engine caught and died several times. We hooked up battery cables. No luck. After a half-hour I began assuring Ana that it was okay, I could hitchhike to Homer, but Darby was a man possessed. He began pouring gas directly into the carburetor where it burst into flame inches from his face. The first time this happened we were all a little spooked but Darby was unfazed. He continued to pour the gas, motion for Gretchen to turn it over, then he’d jump back from the flames, beat out the fire with an oily rag and do it all over again. At one point he poured gas into the carburetor while leaning over the engine with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I felt like I was trapped in a Raymond Carver story. Gretchen waved sadly at us when we finally left. Darby was still under the hood, concentrating too hard to wave. Ana Helena told me eight months later that Darby has since shot himself dead, and that Gretchen and their little girl were managing.”
The most wrenching story here is “Same Old Story,” written for MINE, a zine of abortion stories; if you read enough zines, you’ll encounter many pieces on the subject, but like Tolstoy’s quote about unhappy families, every abortion narrative is painfully unique. Bowstern “turns up pregnant” mid-voyage, and between her shame at letting down her crew and the extreme difficulty of securing an abortion in Kodiak, Alaska, she’s put through a real emotional and physical ringer. Though she is not entirely without the kindness and support of her acquaintances, her story is a reminder of the institutional and social challenges a woman must navigate to exercise her right to choose, particularly in isolated, rural settings.
A few of the stories, mostly those which do not directly concern her own experiences, have some literary affectations that come across as stilted and distract from the distinctive personal voice which is Bowstern’s strength as a storyteller, but for the most part, this is a first rate zine. The edition I bought has a different cover from the one listed on Bowstern’s website, so I’m guessing it’s the reprint from Portland’s Eberhardt Press. In any case, it’s one of the prettiest zine covers I’ve seen.
JM’s Jam: Nic Jones – The Drowned Lovers