Jonathan Evison's 'West of Here': Last gasp of the pioneer spirit
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 10:25 PM
Warning: Don't try to enjoy "West of Here" in snippets before bed. If you can't read all 500 pages in one marathon sitting, at least keep a list of the characters as they appear, or you'll get lost in the throng of Jonathan Evison's voracious story. It's 1889, when the Washington Territory - the last frontier - has been admitted to the Union. Into this rain-drenched wilderness, Evison introduces a town's worth of daring folk who dream and plot and clash as they carve lives in the "uncharted interior of the Olympic Peninsula." Surrounded by Shaker Indians, feminist Utopians, prophetic children, intrepid explorers, violent barkeepers, gold-hearted prostitutes and visionary dam builders, Evison puts his vertiginous camera on a tripod and gives it a good, swift spin.
Hold on tight because soon these short chapters are jumping back and forth to 2006 to follow the modern-day descendants of those original settlers - with a Bigfoot cameo to boot! The result is fun, if dizzying: an American epic clutching an unfilled prescription for Ritalin.
With so much overflowing in these pages, it's fitting that a stupendous dam sits in the center of this sprawling story. Ethan Thornburgh, a failed accountant from Chicago, arrives in the fictional town of Port Bonita just as Washington becomes a state. It's a community so remote that it prints its own money, but Ethan is "going to civilize this place." Full of great ideas ("the electric stairs, the electric pencil sharpener, the magnetic coat hanger"), he sees the Elwha River as the ideal fuel for a hydroelectric plant that will propel the whole region into the future. That's an audacious plan for a penniless man with no connections - his pregnant lover thinks he has "the common sense of a puppy" - but irrepressible Ethan sees "flashes of a life yet to be lived, a bounty to be plucked out of the wilderness for the taking. . . . He sincerely believes: in progress, in destiny, in his own place in history." And before you know it, the force of his boundless optimism plugs up a mighty river, harnesses millions of kilowatts and powers an economic revolution.
While all that (and more) plays out in the 1890s, alternating scenes whisk us to the depressed Port Bonita of 2006. The old Thornburgh Dam is about to be dismantled in a last-ditch effort of river restoration. With the salmon fished to the edge of extinction, only one processing plant remains, managed by a pale descendant of the legendary Ethan. All that chest-beating, manifest-destiny bravado looks like a cheat 120 years later. The economic boom Ethan sparked turned out to be a consumptive fire, and the social progress the Utopians hoped to set in motion now seems just as quixotic: The town is still almost entirely white; the Indians still live stunted, separate lives; and ambitious women who don't marry still endure slurs about their sexuality.
Evison sets up evocative parallels between the characters in these two time frames that demonstrate the poignant diminution of the American spirit. The great dreamers of the late-19th century have given way to people of narrowly circumscribed hopes, trapped in a dead-end small town. The men and women who once boldly imagined how they might reroute rivers and transform human relations have been supplanted by people who imagine how they might spend Saturday night on a bar stool.
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.
The Utopian community of old Port Bonita is sketched so lightly that it barely leaves a watermark on these pages. And the dam itself, an earth-moving project of awesome power and risky engineering, is, alas, described mostly in dispatches from offstage. Evison is reaching for a Tom Wolfe-like grasp of this place, but much of it runs through his fingers. Trying to articulate so many themes - feminism, Indian integration, gay rights, environmental destruction, disability awareness, native spirituality, penal reform, manifest destiny - the novel almost begins to blur as it rushes onward.
God help me for saying this, but I could have used twice as many pages to give all these stories room to breathe. And Evison is such an endearing, unpretentiously entertaining writer that I would have stayed up late to read every one.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor. He reviews books every Wednesday.
WEST OF HERE
By Jonathan Evison
486 pp. $24.95