West of Here
by Jonathan Evison
Algonquin, 496 pages, $24.95
Deep into West of Here, Jonathan Evison’s entertaining, expansive novel of Western American settlement and its aftermath, a contemporary parolee named Timmon Tillman finds himself “forced to concede that his fate was inextricably linked in the most arbitrary ways to things and people and events he’d never given a thought to.” This idea serves as a sort of a structural thesis statement for the book, whose action jumps between the late nineteenth century beginnings of Port Bonita, a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington state, and the down-on-their-luck residents of the town in 2006, many of them descendents of the early settlers. The ties between the two sets of characters start out loose and gradually tighten as Evison expertly weaves an array of seemingly disconnected plot threads into a panoramic tapestry.
The book opens as Jared Thornburgh—a fish processing plant manager whose ancestor built the massive dam that put Port Bonita on the map—has just finished delivering a speech on the occasion of the dam’s anniversary to a rain-soaked crowd. The dam is soon to be removed to restore the ecosystem of the depleted Elwha River.
Then the narrative shifts to the 1880’s, when an unusual blue-eyed child named Thomas Jefferson King has been born to a Klallam Indian woman, and white people with big dreams have moved into the area. The ambitious dreamers include the explorer James Mather, who “was consigned to conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory, mere days in advance of its statehood.” Mather assembles a team to investigate the forbidding Olympic Peninsula, while Eva Lambert, an unmarried, pregnant, feminist journalist for the local newspaper questions him for a story. The father of Eva’s child, Ethan Thornburgh, arrives in town, and although he’s unsuccessful at persuading Eva to marry him, he convinces others to endorse his dam construction scheme.
Meanwhile in 2006, a group of quirky ne’er-do-wells who don’t have many goals besides making it through the workweek to land safely at happy hour inhabit Port Bonita. The good-hearted nobody at the center of the action is Dave Krigstadt, known as Krig, who works at Port Bonita’s last remaining fish processing center. He fondly remembers when he was a high school basketball star, when “life felt like a Bob Seger song,” but now he can’t seem to maintain any friendships because, as he recognizes, he has problems with “boundaries.”
Krig’s enthusiasm is off-putting to Curtis, a teenager who comes to the plant as part of a job shadow program, and Krig’s supervisor, Jared Thornburgh, who briefly becomes Krig’s drinking buddy during a period of marital dissatisfaction. Krig also repels Timmon, a parolee he tries to help by hiring him to work at the plant, and Molly, the waitress who works at his beloved bar, the Bushwacker. Krig nurtures a crush on Molly, despite the fact that she looks “like a mud shark.” The only person who Krig won’t repulse is the reader—he is consistently funny and good-natured. You’ll root for others to appreciate his fascination with Bigfoot, and you’ll mourn with him when his favored Kilt Lifter Ale is removed from the menu at the Bushwacker.
Many of the nineteenth century characters in West of Here have a contemporary shadow, a character who in some diminished way is following the pattern set out by a predecessor. One of the main plot threads in which this occurs is parolee Tillman’s camping trip that parallels Mather’s expedition. These twinned journeys raise interesting questions about why people continue to venture into the wilderness, and the contrasts and similarities between early explorers charting unknown territory and today’s hikers, who head up mountains toting backpacks featuring “bonded construction, urethane mix, external compression straps” and “binary hip-belt components.”
Evison writes in an engaging, nimble narrative voice that captures equally well the august, idealistic sentiments of the industrialists, explorers, and commune founders that settled Port Bonita and the thoughts about Bigfoot, beer, comic books, and the music of Huey Lewis indulged in by the contemporary residents.
Without ever getting preachy about it, in West of Here, Jonathan Evison has wrestled many of the West’s most pressing contemporary issues—such as environmental degradation, the challenges facing Native Americans, and loss of distinctive local businesses in small towns—into one humdinger of a story.
Jonathan Evison will discuss West of Here at the Tattered Cover (Colfax) on February 28 (7:30 p.m.), at the Boulder Book Store on March 1 (7:30 p.m.), at The King’s English in Salt Lake on March 3, and at several events throughout Washington and Oregon this spring.