Dr. Robert Allen Durr - literary scholar, award-winning author, former confidant to legendary writer H. L. Mencken, and one-time rising star in the East Coast academic world - decided one day to give it all up and move to a remote region of Alaska in search of paradise.
Convinced that truth, beauty, and goodness could still be found in the wild, Durr bought a boat and journeyed to Bristol Bay in hopes of becoming a commercial salmon fisherman and earning a living. Catapulting the reader into this last frontier and onto a sea of storms and dangers, madcap bars and drinking parties, amid the camaraderie of some rugged Alaskans, mostly native fishermen known as D Inn Crowd, Down in Bristol Bay chronicles a hard life, but not without songs and ballads, misadventures and follies, occasionally of burlesque proportions, on land as well as at sea.
Combining elements of Krakaur's Into the Wild, Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, Junger's The Perfect Storm, McPhee's Coming Into the Country, and even Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Down in Bristol Bay is a powerful and raucous memoir of a man who abandoned the safe world of academia for the Alaskan wilderness to find his own kind of primal sanity.
Durr was chasing more than sockeye salmon when, in 1968, he traded his professorship at Syracuse University for a life soaked in fish slime and whiskey aboard a commercial gill-netter in Bristol Bay, Alaska. His colleagues thought he'd gone off the deep end, but this affecting memoir tells of a search for a safe port "amid the storm of modern insanities" washing over a world cut off from its natural roots. In the Eskimos, Aleuts and Athabaska Indians of the north, Durr found "people whose forebears and culture glowed like a beacon in my mind, guiding me into the deep channels of our human nature." Durr is a Natty Bumppo for the flower-power era, a voluntary outcast from so-called civilization. Evoking the earnest soul-seeking of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Durr spins out a metaphysics of adventure in which life is lived as a kind of "sustained brinkmanship." Fueled by equal parts Walt Whitman and Jim Beam, the work occasionally evinces a Kerouacian lust for raw experience and the great outdoors. Yet Durr knows that his idealized version of unspoiled nature knocks hard against the alcoholic reality of Native Alaskans dispossessed of their traditional lifestyle. Amid burlesque sea tales and Dionysian escapades, the author ponders the fine line between mere shiftlessness and a Tao-like wisdom: "Was he just another wild and crazy guy, another loose cannon, or was he the real thing, a Zen lunatic, a man living zestfully on the frontier of life?" The question bobs like a buoy in Durr's mind, a nagging tether from which he can never cut free.