West of Here
by Jonathan Evison
A Northwest Epic
A review by Robert M. Detman
Jonathan Evison, author of the 2009 Washington State Book Award-winning All About Lulu, returns with West of Here, a fantastic 482-page doorstop of a novel chronicling the clashing cultures of a peripatetic group of immigrant settlers and Klallam Indians in the fictional town of Port Bonita, in the Olympic Peninsula. Bearing the hallmarks of an epic yarn, the novel boasts frontier exploits, Native American mysticism, Bigfoot, and an environmental cause wound into its myriad character stories.
West of Here covers two time periods of the region, 1890 and 2006, and is focused on the repercussions of a massive dam project on the Elwha River. Ethan Thornburgh, a visionary inventor and raconteur, jots down ideas in his notebook, imagining among other oddities "the electric stairs, the electric pencil sharpener, the magnetic coat hanger, and a flatulent comic revue titled Will-o'-the-Wisp." The hinge of his fortunes, indeed the entire future of the town, is symbolized by the dam that Ethan constructs. The settlers' legacy is foreshadowed in the environmental disaster of the dam, which in 2006 is slated for removal; in this way, West of Here serves as a cautionary tale of Westward expansion, evoking the collapse of a once thriving industrial region.
It is difficult to summarize West of Here. In epic manner, many characters -- major and minor -- flit through scenes that spur the reader's curiosity, and a number of these get resolved too perfunctorily. Also, the relationships between characters can seem overemphasized, as when their forebear's names appear in contemporary Port Bonita's street names and bars. Some characters have a substantial relation to Thornburgh, such as Eva Lambert, a journalist and feminist force before her time. Eva, who sees Ethan's dam project as an opportunity to write herself into prosperity, is hindered by her ambivalent mothering duties raising the child she has with Ethan. Now estranged from Ethan, she believes he is trying secretly to kill her story for fear of negative press. Her simmering defiance and determination make her an appealing character, but after their child dies, Eva falls out of the narrative.
Still, the novel has much to recommend it. Evison distinguishes the time periods through an overwrought prose for the 1890s and a much simpler vernacular for the 2006 chapters. He's not showboating with this approach, yet the style is both archaic and appropriate, as in describing Ethan's survey of the Elwha River:
Ethan met the first leg of his journey with the ease of a purposeful stride. Neither the dank light of the understory, sodden and brittle with winter, nor the squelchy ground beneath his feet could temper Ethan's optimism. Twice the trail met with the confluence of a small stream, and on both occasions a tree had been felled for the purpose of crossing.
The author gets wordy in this register, and rather than highlighting sentences, the prose tends to wash over the reader. The exploration of the Cascade interior -- though it has little to do with the building of the dam -- provides further landscape rhapsodies: "The valley was a bowl of glorious white, and beyond the foothills the rugged snowcapped peaks of the divide loomed in dramatic relief, crisp against a backdrop of deep blue sky."
Elsewhere, the 1890s and 2006 are linked through a supernatural occurrence between a gas-huffing, would-be cartoon artist named Curtis, and his ancestral counterpart, the mute Klallam Indian child of mixed parents, Thomas. When incapacitated by the event -- which involves the spectacular burning of a frontier town and the lowly door chime at a Seven Eleven -- Curtis's thoughts appear as interior monologue: "You tried frantically to tell him about things to come that had already happened, things that were happening even now beneath the thin fabric." This shift into second person makes it unclear who is being addressed, and the reader is forced, somewhat awkwardly, to assume Curtis's mindset, which holds a key to these mystical events that will wreak havoc for cross-cultural relations.
The tragedy and comedy -- there is plenty of both in the novel -- is in the comparison and contrast between the immigrants' stakes for a better life and the contemporary characters' mire in consumer culture. As one character working to put an end to the dam muses, "Port Bonita was an orgy of consumption that seemed like it would never end." Unlike their bolder forefathers who acted on their desires, the Port Bonita citizens of 2006 have a perpetual fear of never leaving the town in the face of crippling desire to escape, and Evison writes best when bringing these winsome characters together. There is an appealing charm to these floundering town-folk, who are preoccupied with the glory of their Junior Varsity basketball days and debates on the minutia of Bigfoot videos, as when Dave Krigstadt, a worker at the town's only remaining fish processing plant, reminisces with his superior, Jared Thornburgh -- great grandson of the dam builder -- over buffalo wings and a steady stream of Kilt Lifter. Evison, reveling in his character's hard luck, writes with a flair worthy of Denis Johnson: "Come Friday night, Krig often found himself alone in the parking lot of Payless or the ferry terminal, nursing a Mickey's Big Mouth in the front seat of his primer-riddled Camaro, listening to Jethro Tull."
Can a parallel be drawn between the settlers' industrious willpower and hope and the miasma of their descendants' seemingly aimless lives? Evison seems to want this implication in the logic of West of Here. Surprisingly, at the end of the novel, the dam, the unsightly object and subject of scorn providing unobtrusive background noise to the novel -- quite literally via the turbines -- hasn't even begun to be dismantled. In spite of the vast narrative and unresolved strands, Jonathan Evison's West of Here is an engrossing and immensely entertaining epic braided together with a passion and regard for the region and its characters.
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