West of Here
Reviewed by James Renovitch, Fri., March 18, 2011
West of Hereby Jonathan Evison
Algonquin Books, 496 pp., $24.95
Where has Walt Whitman's America gone? What happened to the days when an unworked plot of land and a strong back could give a man purpose, respect, and possibly his name on a landmark? Evison's latest novel hops between the trunks of family trees in 1890 and their branches in 2006, painting the maturing turn-of-the-last-century America in stark contrast to the pacified nation of today.
Take West of Here's Thornburgh lineage for example. In 1890, Ethan Thornburgh dives headfirst into settling uncharted territory, enthusiastically (and somewhat unrealistically) building a name for himself despite rolled ankles, the unforgiving climate of Pacific Northwest winters, and mangled digits. His descendant, Jared, is slowly depleting the family trust fund trying to keep the town's salmon processing plant going. Whether it's Evison's intention or not, the older generations, despite their myriad foibles, come off as true pioneers flush with the character that comes with struggle.
The main problem with West of Here's comparison of the two distant generations is that the generally meandering and feckless inhabitants of 2006 are far more interesting then their rugged individualist counterparts, who seem pulled from central casting. Eva is the love interest and feminist firebrand; James Mather is the fearless explorer. There are drunk Indians and sage Indians and even a hooker with a heart of gold. It doesn't take long before an initial admiration of their struggles becomes an inability to care for these cookie-cutter personalities. The modern-day citizens of Port Bonita, Wash., may be rudderless whiners, but they read like real people with problems that perhaps warrant a therapist's touch.
The book could have used a more thorough edit; the many moments of insightful prose are undercut by less fortunate passages such as a description of one character as a "prison of himself." But thought-provoking moments addressing individual and national malaise, along with an impressively striking and unrelenting atmosphere of cold reality, permeate and bring the book to life. Ultimately what's missing are the personalities that make the repeated trek back and forth though time a ride worth taking.