Sprawling Pacific Northwest epic overreaches

By Jay Atkinson
Globe Correspondent / February 13, 2011

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These days, the literary firmament is thronging with Jonathans — Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer. Aspiring to join this industry A-list is Jonathan Evison, whose ambitious new novel, “West of Here,’’ eschews most of the self-conscious irony of his fellow Jonathans. “West of Here’’ is Evison’s attempt at an old-fashioned yarn, a sprawling historical tale set in the Pacific Northwest. He aims to use the taming of this wilderness, as well as the growth, expansion, and dissolution of the fictional Port Bonita, Wash., as a paradigm of the American story.

Despite its realism, Evison’s novel still contains a few postmodern conceits, including an abundance of pop culture references meant to underscore the banality of contemporary American life. The book also teems with characters, though many of them, particularly in the early edition of Port Bonita, represent the stock company of such stories: drunken, or preternaturally wise, Native Americans; shifty saloon owners; Gertie McGrew, a prostitute with a heart of gold; and Eva Lambert, a crusading, proto-feminist newspaperwoman. These clichés amount to an unfortunate choice for Evison, who should have focused on creating fresher portraits to buoy his tale.

The most important event in the book, the construction of a great dam across the Elwha River, is a feat of 1890 imagination and engineering meant to put this tiny burg on the map. In the other half of the story, set in contemporary Port Bonita, the reader learns of the ecological and societal damage this structure has caused, as the town fathers of 2006 (many of whom are direct descendants of Port Bonita’s founders) schedule the dam for demolition. By returning the surrounding wilderness to its pristine condition, they hope to absolve the town of its original sins: greed, personal ambition that led to tragedy, and the mistreatment of the region’s original inhabitants, the Klallam. But since Evison does not expend enough energy conjuring up the dam, as well as the tribulations of those who built it, there is a hole at the center of his story.

In the midst of his sweeping tale, Evison concentrates on a palpable truth: that all men stand upon invisible foundations, on the deep roots of things they cannot see or understand. To accomplish this, he’s created a series of panels, some of them fashioned from the significant events of the late 1800s, and the rest made from what abides in Port Bonita, circa 2006. Then he slides these panels over one another in sections of varying length, trying to create a diorama of the region that includes the ghosts of the past. Certainly, Evison believes in his story, in the greater reality of his fiction and that strength of purpose saves the novel from its ragged plot, uneven characterizations, and abundance of red herrings.

Initially, the Elwha was chock-full of salmon and steelhead trout, and the muddy thoroughfares of Port Bonita were crowded with mule traders, drovers, speculators, and the hapless Klallam, stumbling around in a whiskey fever. Into this wild locale strides Ethan Thornburgh, a ne’er-do-well from back East with big ideas for transforming Port Bonita. He arrives in pursuit of Eva Lambert, a wealthy debutante who fled to the Northwest to escape her domineering father. The doomed affair between Ethan and Eva is the vital impetus in the creation of Port Bonita and the novel itself, as the heretofore hapless Ethan proves to Lamberts near and far that he’s worth his salt.

Ethan is “a failed accountant with no reputation, five hundred dollars, and a moth-eaten suit.’’ At times, Evison can be a marvelously evocative writer, but has difficulty creating a sense of narrative tension between the two halves of the book, which is the lifeblood of this endeavor. Too many of the subplots lead nowhere, especially the most important one, involving the Arctic explorer and former Indian fighter, James Mather. After being smitten by Eva, already pregnant with Ethan’s child, Mather sets out with a party to find a southwest passage through the Olympic Mountains. Initially, the reader is hopeful that Mather’s exploits will help bind the disparate parts of the story. Action that builds to a crescendo via a deft mix of description, detail, and dialogue will be required to force such an unwieldy story uphill. However, many of these potentially dramatic scenes are skipped over or arrive too late, and both the Mather expedition and his attraction to Eva end up petering out.

Evison further burdens himself by making the 2006 portion of the narrative a comedy of errors that doesn’t connect with the seriousness and portent of the other half. And his reliance on brand names to describe the empty consumerism of the new millennium — Merit Ultra Lights, Stuart Scott of ESPN, KFC, Rice Chex, et al. — gives the weightier half of the story nothing substantial to push against.

Any novel that sets itself such a monumental task is bound to fail. Even a skilled maximalist like Charles Dickens would struggle trying to explain the effect that a single determinate moment in history might have on subsequent generations, let alone how the creation of an entire town will reverberate in the lives of dozens of individuals 116 years later. Aiming high and failing magnificently is therefore the best possible outcome, and Jonathan Evison’s confidence in his tale is certain to boost his star a little higher in the heavens.

Jay Atkinson’s latest book, his sixth, is a collection of stories titled “Tauvernier Street.’’ Contact him at

WEST OF HERE By Jonathan Evison

Algonquin, 486 pp., $24.95