“I’m told that while the odds are good, the goods are odd.” Thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling is perfectly aware that the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program isn’t a prime venue for a woman in search of a hot date. Given that 50 below zero counts as a balmy day at the Amundsen-Scott research station and the resident sociologist considers its population of Beakers (scientists), Nailheads (construction workers) and Fingys (X-rated acronym for first-timers) “most analogous to a penal institution,” any extracurricular dabbling is likely to be furtive and weird. Which is fine with Cooper. For her, this “loner’s Disney World” is her last chance to redeem a painting vocation, indeed a whole life, that’s been frozen since the suicide of her twin brother. The fact that she’s fixated on sketches of mittens is not a good sign.
“If you are going to be self-conscious, try to be funny about it or insightful.” This advice is given to Cooper early on by Tucker, the station’s director, who, as a gay black man in a position of authority, speaks from experience. But it might as well be the mantra for the rest of the motley characters in “South Pole Station,” a ramblingly entertaining first novel by the journalist Ashley Shelby, whose sister, she reveals in her acknowledgments, is one of the few women to have “winter-overed” at the pole. The mechanics of the central plot — which hinges on the rivalry of two teams of astrophysicists squabbling over the Big Bang theory and the disruptive presence of a helioseismologist climate-change denier — are best not inspected too closely, although they do yield some nicely rebellious behavior, a stint of high-stakes political jostling and a satisfying if only intermittently convincing nerd romance. (When the pheromones kick in, it’s “like starting a single-variable equation and watching it turn into differential calculus before your eyes.”) More appealing for many readers — who, like Cooper, may glaze over when things get “too science-y” — are the back stories and posturings of the ensemble cast, whose day-to-day dramas provide a vivid notion of what it’s like to live in a frigid landscape that’s dark for six months of the year, “a place you went to become unreachable.” How do people wind up here?
For Cooper, the answer lies back in her childhood as the daughter of an armchair explorer in whose polar library she and her brother, David, found their favorite piece of “deranged bedtime reading,” Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World.” Committing entire passages to memory, these precocious 8-year-olds transformed his tragicomic saga of the disastrous Scott expedition into their private adventure: “He was always Titus, I was always Cherry. Never made sense, because Cherry wasn’t on the final slog — all he did was stand around waiting — but we never cared. Titus was the injured guy who walked into the blizzard in order to save the others — he was the hero.” So it makes sense that David (or at least a Tylenol bottle’s worth of his ashes) has accompanied Cooper on her own worst journey.
And what of her fellow Polies? Bozer, the Confederate-flag-bandanna’d leader of the Nailheads, once a search-and-rescue jock, has already been on the ice nine times. The reasons for that, and for his connection to Denise, the sociologist, whose previous work focused on transgendered men in a Rio favela, will be explained in due time. As will the link between Tucker and Doc Carla, the tough-talking medic whose posting is described as “a janitor at the porno theater kind of gig.” The artists and writers are pretty much stock characters, turning up every once in a while to choreograph dances about the estrus cycle of seals and lament their lack of progress on literary investigations of the “cartographic imperative.” More interesting are the Beakers, chief among whom is Sal, an astrophysicist who “looks like the rush chair for Sigma Chi” and has major father issues. Meanwhile Pearl, a new recruit to the kitchen staff, is battling with Bonnie, the grizzled head cook, for control of the menu, clandestinely shredding pages from Bonnie’s copy of “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest” and offering edible alternatives to her much-despised carrot-mushroom loaf. And then there’s Frank, the climate-change denier (or, as Denise puts it, the “walking example of the Black Sheep Effect”), suspiciously calm about his outcast status. It is not revealing too much to say that his tentative friendship with Cooper will end very badly.
By that time, though, Cooper has become devoted to life at the pole, with its library of Douglas Adams tomes, its “Star Trek” finger-split greetings and competitive beard-growing and its signature cocktails spritzed with jet fuel. In this place where footsteps sound like “boots crushing Saltines,” where feuds can be provoked by the rights to a pool table or the merits of the novels of Larry McMurtry, and the water in the toilet might be “from snow that had fallen in the 15th century,” she may be able to let her memories make “the promised transition from unbearable to bittersweet.” When her stint is over, instead of the bland abstract landscapes her patrons at the National Science Foundation are expecting, Cooper will submit a collection of jagged portraits of Beakers and Nailheads and Fingys. And she won’t be disappointed when the official assessment reports that they could have been painted “in any local bar.” Neither will Shelby’s readers.