West of here you'll find an adventurous novel

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 11, 2011

“West of Here,” by Jonathan Evison. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 486 pp. $24.95.
By Elizabeth Cook
Readers who delve into the wilderness of Jonathan Evison’s “West of Here” are in for an adventure.
Covering two eras and 42 points of view, the story winds along an uncharted path that appears fraught with distractions and detours.
A man shivers in the dark, listening for Sasquatch. Others seek fame for mapping new territory or fortune for damming a mighty river. A woman searches for truth and independence. Mothers try to protect their mysterious sons. Indians try to maintain sobriety.
Where is this going?
By journey’s end on the 486th page, though, all the meanderings have converged into one grand tale of the Pacific Northwest. You’ll know not only where the region is, figuratively speaking, but also how it got where it is today.
Constructing the story is an amazing feat on Evison’s part, considering the opportunities to get readers lost. He zig zags between 1890 and 2006 to portray the rough beginnings of fictional Port Bonita — modeled after Port Angeles — and its 21st century dilemma. In the earlier period, the town was the jumping off point for explorers and entrepreneurs determined to tame this last frontier. In the modern period, Port Bonita and the descendants of those early inhabitants are in a slump, and the remedy appears to be dismantling the very dam that was supposed to drive prosperity.
This is Evison’s second novel, following “All About Lulu” (Soft Skull, 2008). He told an interviewer on NPR he wanted to tell this story in a different way. “So often when we historicize material we use this big wide-angle lens,” he said. “The novel I wanted to write, instead of a wide-angle lens, was a kaleidoscope of clashing and overlapping first-person narratives.”
Indeed it is. The story develops from seemingly countless angles — showing both how disparate everyone is and how connected.
Thrown in among the strivers and explorers and prostitutes and Indian chiefs are mystical elements — including a mute 19th century Klallam Indian boy who temporarily exchanges spirits with a 21st century teen tripping on LSD.
And then there’s Sasquatch. Or is there?
The cold, damp Olympic peninsula, where Evison has spent much of his life hiking and camping, provides the story’s central tension — man vs. nature. Also at work are determined women vs. men who would control them; Indians vs. whites and liquor; and individuals vs. societal norms — from sexual orientation to personal space.
Heroes are hard to identify in “West of Here” if by “hero” you mean a completely sympathetic character. Everyone is flawed in some way.
Aren’t we all?
The character who frames the story from beginning to end is a hapless supervisor from the failing fish-packing plant, a divorcee who sabotages his relationships by always pushing a little too hard — and going on too long about Sasquatch.
But he is as much of Port Bonita’s history as the 19th century visionary who decided to dam the Elwha River. Ditto for the specialist, Meriweather, who arrives at the hospital to diagnose the 21st century boy spouting 19th century words, with burned arms and no knowledge of how they got that way.
An Escalade-driving “little raisin of an Indian,” Meriweather concludes that the boy walks between worlds. “He’s been places he’s never been,” he tells the distraught mother.
That makes no sense, she says. The specialist’s response may be the best signpost on the strange, fascinating journey that is “West of Here.”
“Our memories are not ours alone,” the specialist says. “Our experience belongs to all that is living, and all that has ever lived. It even belongs to that which is not yet born and may never be born.”