Jonathan Evison's 'West of Here' spans a century of Olympic Peninsula history
Book review: Bainbridge Island novelist Jonathan Evison ("All About Lulu") returns with "West of Here," an Olympic Peninsula epic set in both the past and present.
Seattle Times arts writer
Jonathan EvisonThe author reads from "West of Here" at these area locations:
• At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-5332 or www.eagleharborbooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
• At 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle's University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
• At 6:30 p.m. Friday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'West of Here'
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin, 486 pp., $24.95
Bainbridge Island writer Jonathan Evison delivered quite the calling card in 2008 with "All About Lulu," his debut novel about obsessive love, bewildering sibling relations and the world of professional bodybuilding.
In his new work of fiction, "West of Here," he ramps up the ambition even higher, jam-packing half a dozen or more novels, sometimes rather awkwardly, into one.
The setting is the town of Port Bonita (a lightly disguised Port Angeles) and the nearby Olympic Mountains. The action flips back and forth between the winter of 1889-1890 and the summer of 2006. There's not so much a plot as a huge rotating cast of characters taking brief turns in Evison's spotlight.
In 1889-1890, we have headstrong Eva Lambert, unmarried, eight months pregnant, on the run from her wealthy Chicago family, living in a utopian colony near Port Bonita and determined to make a go of it as an activist journalist. We also have explorer James Mather, about to lead an expedition through the heart of the Olympics out to the Pacific Coast, as well as Ethan Thornburgh, the father of Eva's child, who dreams of damming the Elwha River.
Also in the picture: Thomas, a Klallam tribe teen who's either epileptic or gifted with some psychic form of time-travel; various liquor-vulnerable and/or pious Klallam Indians; a proverbial feisty whore with a heart of gold — and her extremely nasty pimp.
In 2006, we have David Krigstadt, an amiable, lonely slacker type whose driving passion is proving that Bigfoot exists. His boss, Jared Thornburgh, scion of one of Port Bonita's first families, puzzles over how to speak publicly about the impending demolition of the dam his ancestor built. Curtis, a troubled Klallam teenager, seems to be the twin-across-time of epileptic-visionary Thomas, while Timmon Tillman, an ex-con on the lam, winds up retracing the path of the 1889-1890 expedition.
At least a dozen other characters are key to the action.
What Evison is trying to do with this crowded canvas is create an echo chamber between past and present. One sly touch is the way a lively character from 1889 is parlayed into a place-name that the present-day locals take entirely for granted. Gertie the hooker, for instance, becomes "Gertie's," a favorite Port Bonita watering hole in 2006. In other cases, especially with Thomas and Curtis, the echoing of the past in the present (and vice versa) becomes almost magic-realist in nature.
Another focus is the contrast between frontier-expanding past and confining small-town present. Present-day Port Bonita, for most of its alcohol- or dope-fogged citizens, is a place they'd like to escape, if only they could muster the will (and cash) to do so.
In both time periods, the urge to reinvent oneself is pressing, but often futile. "Can we really be whoever we want to be," one character asks, "now that we've collected all that we are?" It's the central question of the novel.
While Evison's natural descriptions can be marvelous, his character portrayal is too often superficial, perhaps because he's tried to jam in more than a mere 500 pages can accommodate. At times, the book feels like a historical epic for people with short attention spans. Repeatedly, a plot-thread will start coming to life, only to be clipped short as the action skips backward or forward 100-plus years. All the to-ing and fro-ing makes it difficult ever to feel fully immersed in the book.
Evison is an obvious talent — but "West of Here" is an unwieldy manifestation of his gifts.
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