Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Epic Lit: West of Here makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a low-budget hack

There’s ambition, and then there’s Ambition.  Jonathan Evison’s West of Here is told on such a grand, epic scale it makes Cecil B. DeMille look like a low-budget indie director.

Producing even a slim novel is an audacious undertaking for any writer, but in his second book Evison (All About Lulu) proves he’s got stamina and mettle—much like the two centuries of characters who walk large across the Pacific Northwest landscape in West of Here’s sprawling plot.  The author cuts back and forth between two stories: the exploration and settlement in 1890 of Port Bonita, a small town on the Washington coast; and the efforts of those settlers’ descendants nearly 120 years later to honor the pioneer spirit with the annual Dam Days festival.  Though the first half of the novel focuses on the 19th-century story, Evison eventually starts cross-cutting between the two plots at a faster pace, with succeeding chapters showing how the two generations contrast and complement each other.

Though West of Here’s canvas is large as an Albert Bierstadt mural, Evison never loses sight of the half-inch human figures on the landscape.  In 1889, we meet “thirty-four-year-old Arctic explorer, Indian fighter, and rugged individual James Mather” ordered by the governor to “conquer the last frontier of the Washington Territory.”  The sum total of Mather’s orders, in a champagne toast from the governor, was one word: “Succeed.”  We also meet Ethan Thornburgh, a visionary whose plan for a hydroelectric dam will shape the town’s destiny; and Eva, a prototypical feminist who is determined to be “more than a chicken-tending, child-rearing Madonna of the frontier.”  There’s Eva’s brother Jacob, come to “rescue” her from a life with no future in a town with even less potential, in his dim view:
A beach littered with savages huddling around fires. A muddy hill bristling with stumps. A cluster of oversized tool sheds, some of them on silts, emblazoned with crude signs, masquerading as commerce. Not a brick building or a gas lamp among them.  And all of it hemmed in by an impenetrable wilderness. He could scarcely wait to leave.
Other characters include a prostitute straight from Central Casting: “Galloping” Gertie McGrew who “could suck a billiard ball through a drainpipe;” the local Klallam Indians who, predictably, fall prey to the white man’s alcohol; a Shaker commune; and on and on it goes with a cast list as lengthy as the barrel of a frontier long rifle.

And that’s just the 1890 crowd.  In the 2006 plot, Evison introduces us to Dave “Krig” Krigstadt, former high school basketball star, now the production manager at High Tide Seafoods and part-time Sasquatch hunter; Timmon Tillman, ex-con who arrives in town hoping to begin a new chapter in his life (when he applies for a job at High Tide, Krig tells him, “P.B.’s all about fresh starts.  Used to be, anyway.”); Franklin Bell, Tillman’s parole officer and year-round eggnog drinker; and Jared Thornburgh, Ethan’s descendant, who is doomed to live “in the shadow of this obsolete dam, his fortune linked inextricably to its hulking existence, its legacy of ecological menace.”  Jared is being forced to literally dismantle Ethan’s dream, proving that the future can be a pretty dispiriting place when you get there.

You’ve seen most of these characters before in Hollywood, from The Way West to Deadwood.  What’s fresh in Evison’s take, however, is the clever way he melds the modern with the tried-and-true.  In the case of Curtis, a teenager addicted to huffing spray paint and prone to visions of past lives, he erases the boundary between past and present as the boy becomes a conduit through which the past speaks to present-day Port Bonitans.  Whether they listen or not is another matter.

In the early days, the town has a reckless energy, fueled by the hopes of manifest destiny: “Port Bonita, with its crude and youthful vigor, its laughing, belching, bawdy can-do spirit,” Evison writes.  “A pugnacious town, Port Bonita, a fighter, and a damn good bet.”  The first section of the novel—nearly all of it set in 1890—ends with Ethan and Jacob standing on a bluff overlooking a chasm where plans for a dam are about to be unrolled.  You can practically hear the turbines of progress in Ethan’s voice when he says: “A glittering city will take shape along that strait, Jake, you wait and see.”

But 120 years later, that optimism is crushed flat as a tin can of salmon. Even as it gets ready to celebrate Dam Days, the town is mired in economic doldrums:
Fucking Wal-Mart. They killed everything. Curtis could hardly recognize this place anymore. He was almost embarrassed to admit that as a child, Port Bonita had seemed like a glorious place, the center of the universe, and Dam Days had seemed a grand occasion marked by fry bread tacos and brass bands. Now it seemed stupid: a bunch of fat whites and sad-looking Indians mulling around Lake Thornburgh as if there were anything to see, anything to celebrate but a hulking mass of useless concrete and a lot of chain-link fence. As if Port Bonita were anything else but one big fucking Wal-Mart.
Evison is evocative in his descriptions of both people and place.  Here, for example, is our introduction to Ethan Thornburgh as he steps off the steamer onto the dock at Port Bonita in 1889: “a young man of some distinction, all buttoned up in a brown suit with tails, freshly coifed, smelling of camphor and spices, his cleft chin clean-shaven, a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing.”  And here is the view of the town that stretches a short length in front of him: “There was only Front Street, a ragtag row of structures running east to west in an arrangement that suggested jetsam spewed on the shoreline.”

Particularly in the 19th-century sections, Evison writes from a literary tradition whose trail was blazed by historical novelists like A. B. Guthrie, Allan W. Eckert, and Larry McMurtry.  Evison takes some of his sentences right up to the fence between originality and cliché.  Thankfully, he never climbs over that fence (or, if he does, it’s a purposeful nod toward pastiche).  In recounting the wilderness trek of Mather and his party, Evison seems to be calling up the ghosts of classic adventurer-explorers in passages like this:
For days on end, they marched silently but for their own labored breaths and the plodding progress of their snowshoes, toward the broad face of Olympus. The brittle wind chapped their faces, burned their eyes, whistled past their ears with a ghostly howl. Hunger would not be ignored, nor was it content to simply gnaw at their bellies; by the middle of March, it began to work upon their minds. Trudging forward, they were as five strangers—together yet alone—imprisoned by their thoughts.
Haunting both halves of the book is one of the most significant characters: Bigfoot.  He’s the howl in the wilderness for Mather and his doomed party, and he’s the threatening shadows in the forest for Dave Krigstadt who tries to record the chilling “vocalizations” as proof of his encounter.  Evison uses Sasquatch to show the fear and mystery of the invisible wilderness, that region of the deepest woods where few men go, but all of us populate with our imaginations.  To believe in Sasquatch is to have faith there is still more to be discovered in this overmapped world of ours.  All the Dam Days in the world could not hold back that sense of mystery.

As much as anything, West of Here is a novel about a failed economy.  Back in 1890, Ethan reflects, “Perhaps Port Bonita was not an address, after all, not even a place, but a spirit, an essence, a pulse—a future still unfolding.”  But 116 years later, residents of Port Bonita find unemployment and shuttered businesses have weakened that pulse: “For five generations, Port Bonita was an orgy of consumption that seemed like it would never end.  Every day was Dam Day.  But now it was time to clean up the mess.”

As the story closes, Jared Thornburgh is giving the keynote speech at the annual festival—a speech he’s struggled the whole novel to compose—and even in the pouring rain and the disinterested listeners, he’s delivering his message to the town: “So I say to you, Port Bonita: Onward!  There is a future, and it begins right now.”  It’s a Hollywood-uplift moment (cue the swelling orchestra), but it’s one that this grand-scale novel, bursting at the seams with energy, has been working toward for 500 pages.  Evison more than earns his crescendo.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan Evison's West of Here is an epic thriller. As grand as the Great Northwest it's set in, it will sweep you away!