Jonathan Evison attracted some attention for his first novel, All About Lulu, but the praise greeting his second work, West Of Here, was positively deafening. In some circles, it was hailed as an early entry into 2011’s “Great American Novel” sweepstakes, a book mixing the folklore, history, and present-day drizzle of the Pacific Northwest into an intoxicating blend of past tragedies and present comedies.
So is it that book? Not quite, but it’s still a terrific read. Evison bounces—sometimes too chaotically—between the fictional town of Port Bonita, Washington, in the year 1890 and the year 2006, teasing out his main themes of rediscovery, resurrection, and resentment over the course of the book’s nearly 500 pages. The 1890 sections, which play off the conflicts between the down-to-earth citizens of Port Bonita, the residents of a nearby colony known for its progressive politics, and the local Indian tribe, have the air of an unfinished tragedy, of a world where people would rather destroy each other than reconcile their differences. The 2006 sections, which gracefully fill in the knowledge of what came after 1890, are played more for dark comedy, but Evison always has his eye on how the past informs the present, and sometimes vice versa.
If West Of Here has a flaw, it’s that Evison simply tries to do too much. Around the book’s midpoint, readers will be forgiven for wondering if he’ll ever get to the point, since he’s balancing roughly two dozen characters in two time periods, to the point where seemingly major characters—like Eva, a pregnant woman dreaming of people taking her seriously as a human being and not just a prospective mother—will disappear for dozens of pages at a time, lost in the shuffle in favor of less-interesting characters and incidents. Add in the fact that Evison seems to have never met a Pacific Northwest-centric idea he didn’t want to incorporate into this book—including everything from Mount Olympus to Sasquatch—and there are portions where the book seems in grave danger of spinning out of control.
But as West Of Here goes on, Evison’s structure begins to suggest itself, and the ties between past and present grow more and more pronounced, as events in the past roughly parallel those in the present, and Evison gives a workout to the old adage about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce. The characters, right down to the most insignificant players, are vividly drawn, and the story Evison wants to tell about the things we have to do to reinvent ourselves or the world around us is thematically rich and filled with page-turning suspense.
West Of Here tries to do too much, but it pulls off so much of its intended accomplishments so well that a little excess is forgivable. By the time the book reaches its memorably sad yet hopeful climax, the earlier issues have melted away in the face of the setting’s constant rain. West Of Here isn’t the Great American Novel, but it has power nonetheless.