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West of Here
By Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / Workman Publishing
As regular readers know, I only give out perfect tens at CCLaP an average of two or three times a year, and the title has to pass a highly exacting list of criteria to earn it: among other requirements, it must of course be impeccably written, find a great mix between plot and character development, surprise the reader in its greatness relative to the author's existing reputation, and by the end ultimately tell a grander story than what its mere plotline hints at, a not only literal but metaphorical tale that can strongly stand on its own through at least another generation of readers if not a lot more. And ladies and gentlemen, I've found the latest, Jonathan Evison's epic new West of Here, a legitimate saga (but only in the way that TC Boyle's books are sagas too) that spans over a hundred years in the history of a small Pacific Northwest town. And that's ironic and great, because as longtime readers remember, when I reviewed Evison's previous book, the slight coming-of-age tale All About Lulu from the now-defunct Soft Skull Press, the biggest complaint I had was that although the writing itself was just fine, I wished Evison had picked something much grander to talk about, ironically stated right as he was undoubtedly just finishing up this newest saga.
And an epic saga it is, no way to deny it; like I said, spanning two timelines from the 1890s and early 2000s, it tells the dual story of the founding and downfall of the tiny yet earnest Washington village of Port Bonita, filled at its outset with men of large visions who wished to turn the place into the next Seattle, but by a century later a crumbling small town full of bumbling trash, people who share their ancestors' last names but almost nothing else. Or is that actually correct? Because although the storylines are quite different, you could maybe argue that what all these characters have in common is a certain yearning about the world, a certain hunger for accomplishing more than they have, along with a largely shared inability to actually achieve these dreams, making it in toto a work about hope, loss and what comes after, no matter which time period you're talking about.
That's really the main pleasure of the book, is to flip back and forth between the two milieus, and contrast the way that the similar problems between centuries manifest themselves in different ways -- from the land grabs and harsh frontier lifestyles of the 1890s, right before the area is finally about to pass into statehood, to the blue-collar jobs and hillbilly existences of the 21st century, when the massive dam that became the defining element of the region (which the 1890s people are there to build) is finally scheduled for demolition, it long ago killing off the local fish population and thus most of the local industry that had made the area such a lovely place in the 1920s and '30s, when business was at its most booming. And admirably, Evison doesn't skimp on the historical research such a story requires; whether we're strolling down a frontier main street or hiking to Mount Olympus, he does an impressive job of actually placing us at that specific time and setting, making a full half of this a piece of legitimate and very successful historical fiction.
But like I said, it's with his characters that Evison really shines, and it's no coincidence that I mentioned TC Boyle earlier; because this is a very Boylean kind of story, full of quirky yet complex characters who run a full gamut of emotions and motivations, telling ironically a grand epic through a series of scenes that often can only be described as goofy: there's the Napoleonic black parole officer, for example, who chugs a gallon of eggnog a day even in the middle of summer; the proto-feminist and single mother who in the 1890s treks out to Port Bonita by herself with child in tow, to live in a miserably mismanaged liberal utopian community and become an investigative journalist in a region with no scandals; and not to mention the dual bored, insolent yet brilliant Native American teenage boys, one from each time period, who somehow manage to magically swap souls for a moment so to simultaneously see their 19th-century camp and the 21st-century Wal-Mart that's replaced it, one of several out-and-out fantastical moments in this sprawling, hard-to-classify novel.
It's a whopper of a story, even more unexpected by his last novel being so twentysomething pedestrian, and I expect that it's going to vault Evison in many people's eyes into a whole new literary category he wasn't in before, one where people at more impressive publications than mine start talking about him in the same breath as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen. It's for all these reasons that today it becomes the first book so far of 2011 to get a perfect ten here at CCLaP, and why I encourage you to check out a copy whenever you have a chance.
Out of 10: 10