Mostly Cloudy79° WeatherMostly Cloudy79° Weather

Review: Rugged cast of characters populates wonderful 'West of Here' by Jonathan Evison

Port Bonita, Jonathan Evison's fictional town in West of Here, lies on the upper thumb of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, the most northwestern spot of real estate in the lower 48 states. Shadowed by the mighty Olympic Mountain Range, hemmed in by the Pacific and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, this small, isolated township is the site of two remarkable narratives, one set in the past, the other 100 years later. This interplay between generations shows how the dreams of the founders affect those living in the present day.

Early on, circa 1890, Port Bonita is nothing more than a dockside settlement replete with wooden boardwalks, several small hotels, muddy lanes and newcomers with a "shared appetite for new possibilities." Among the townsfolk are Klallam Indians, explorers, prostitutes nicknamed Peaches and Gallopin' Gertie, drunks, businessmen and even a mystical boy.

Evison populates his town as if it's an actual dot on the map. By my count, there are 20 characters in this early section (and nearly as many in the later years), but the miracle in this big, booming ruckus of a novel is how Evison keeps each one distinct.

James Mather, for one, epitomizes the pioneer spirit of the place. As an "Arctic explorer, Indian fighter, and rugged individual," he has been tasked by the governor to chart the peninsula's interior. This "bear of a man" soon leads an expedition headlong into unknown territory — and damn the consequences — because he believes that "only in adventure are the senses fully engaged."

Also new to Port Bonita is Ethan Thornburgh, "a failed accountant" who fancies himself an "idea man." While trying to create a fresh destiny for himself (and earn back his ex-lover's affections) Ethan strikes upon "the single greatest idea of his life": He will plug the nearby Elwha River and build a dam. The dam that eventually takes shape, and the lake that forms from it, will ensure his legacy, his fame and his fortune.

"We'll transform this place . . . for a hundred miles in every direction," he says.

But men aren't the only ones with grand designs. Take Eva Lambert, the woman Ethan is struggling to woo back. The daughter of an industrialist, Eva is a proto-feminist and muckraking journalist. She believes in "feminine self-sufficiency" and lives outside town on a commonwealth, a sort of utopian commune that prints its own money.

While West of Here tells the story of two groups of citizens from different time periods — 1890 and 2006 — these people remain connected by a shared landscape and by the natural currents of life. Evison links Port Bonita's predecessors to its modern denizens by giving them similar worries, aspirations and troubles — because trouble, after all, is universal.

More than 100 years later, Hillary Burch lives under the same overcast sky as Eva once did, and like Eva, she also subscribes to a similar feminine self-sufficiency. Hillary's a fierce idealist, a proponent of sustainability, and she understands that progress means cleaning up the messes created by her predecessors. Hillary's Port Bonita is now just a coastal backwater famous for the Thornburgh Dam, which has proven to be an "ecological menace" — the salmon have all but died out.

These days Port Bonita is a blight of strip malls and Walmarts and Indian casinos. The only decent thing going is Dam Days, an annual celebration to honor the founding fathers. Times have indeed changed. Kids have graduated from sipping alcohol to huffing aerosol cans. Ethan Thornburgh's ineffectual descendant now runs a seafood processing plant. Grown men sit around the Bushwhacker bar recounting high school glory days.

What hasn't left, however, is that indomitable Western grit. And that's certainly true of Timmon Tillman, a recent parolee and lover of Whitman, who decides to go off the grid and follow the same wilderness journey taken by the explorer James Mather. Hot on Timmon's trail is his parole officer, Franklin Bell, a black man with a big heart and an affinity for Don Henley music and eggnog.

It would be nice to sum up the entire cast, but there are simply too many to name in such a short space. Even so, Evison manages to record a broad stratum of society, from hoteliers to criminals, from doctors to dropouts. Along the way he captures American Indian legends, Bigfoot enthusiasts, and the romance, violence and adventures that run through people's daily lives.

West of Here ends where it began, as any good Pacific Northwest book should: under a sky full of rain. Drenched but defiantly standing, this latest generation must now attempt to forge ahead with its hopes, dreams and the mistakes they'll inevitably make. And it all happens in tiny Port Bonita, where Evison, a tremendously gifted storyteller, has staked claim to a wondrous frontier he can proudly call his own.

West of Here

By Jonathan Evison

Algonquin Books,

486 pages, $24.95

Review: Rugged cast of characters populates wonderful 'West of Here' by Jonathan Evison 02/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 3:30am]

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, San Francisco Chronicle.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...