And yet for all the Wild West scheming of those 1890s scenes, the novel’s modern-day action offers its own special charm, largely because Evison is such an energetic storyteller who spools out a roster of quirky characters. Denied the awesome potential of an untamed world, his middle managers, factory workers and ex-cons are forced to explore a more interior realm than their errant ancestors. A parole officer, one of the town’s few black men, tries to inspire his charges to imagine a better future; a salmon worker pursues the forest’s mythical creatures; and a young woman searches for the strength to admit she’s a lesbian. All these tales play out in Evison’s brisk, often comic, always deeply sympathetic narrative about how modern, ordinary people still manage “the sort of reckless heroism that could drive a man to extraordinary acts.”
Evison keeps all the strands of this novel winding along — a feat of narrative acrobatics that’s sometimes more dazzling than comprehensible. But tending to all those spinning subplots can lead to some aggravating shortcuts. So many characters and stories are crammed into this novel that they suffer from a degree of oxygen deficiency, which can make for lightheaded fun — or give you a headache. Ethan Thornburgh, for instance, is wonderfully introduced, but since there isn’t space to follow his progress, he’s subjected to several clunky personality shifts and then dropped. Other fascinating characters, such as his feminist lover, are merely shipped back East. One mystical Indian would be too many, but we get two, with a touch of spooky time-travel that interrupts the novel’s realism for reasons that remain only vaguely developed.