The Northwest as we know it was founded by hucksters, craven opportunists, and crazy people. As they descended upon one of the last untouched territories of the United States, they adapted to the land, cooling their temperaments and becoming settlers. Only a very few proved indomitable enough to do the reverse, to shape the landscape in their own image. Those stories—feats of engineering and will like the Denny regrade and the creation of the Ballard locks—are the closest thing we in the Northwest have to a shared story like the epics, the creation myths and heroic sagas of the distant past.
Bainbridge Island resident Jonathan Evison's new novel, West of Here, aspires to that kind of Northwest epic status. To that effect, it smartly begins with a world-class huckster named Ethan Thornburgh, a man in a not-quite-nice suit filing off a steamer in the fictional Washington town of Port Bonita in December of 1889. Thornburgh cuts a comic figure—"a waxed mustache mantle[s] his lip like two sea horses kissing"—but an ambitious one. Considering himself a bold inventor, he keeps a notebook full of momentary inspirations, like "the Walla Walla chip (a variation on the Saratoga chip—made with sweet onion), the electric stairs, the electric pencil sharpener, the magnetic coat hanger, and a flatulent comic review titled Will-o'-the-Wisp."
But the comedic Thornburgh comes to Port Bonita for a serious reason: to woo Eva Lambert, who is pregnant with his child. To prove his worth to Lambert, he decides to become a serious man. Soon enough, he's decided to dam the Elwha River and transform his tiny adopted frontier town into a dynamic source of power and food for the region, and a competitor for more southerly port towns like Tacoma and (the recently fire-ravaged) Seattle.
Washington has been waiting a long time for this kind of Michenerian treatment, and Evison knows it; he arranges all the necessary elements on a huge field of play. Dozens of characters float through the book; not one of these lives is untouched by the dam. West of Here bounces back and forth in time to tell the stories of Port Bonitans at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 21st, when environmental concerns require the dam's gradual dissolution. In both time periods, Native Americans are dealing with the complicated world delivered by the Europeans; women are forced to live with the consequences left to them by clumsy, insensitive men; and happiness confounds everyone at every opportunity. A bigfoot enthusiast can't seem to shake his family's eternal stench of inconsequentiality; an explorer loses his way in the wilderness, and over a century later, a parolee fails to lose himself in that same forsaken stretch of forest; a prostitute wonders if there's anything more for her than a career managing a successful brothel; a young man's experiments with drugs take a strange, science-fictional turn.
At times, Evison's scope widens too far, and clichés and stereotypes smuggle themselves into the narrative. As she is introduced, Lambert appears to be the kind of go-for-the-gusto feminist who can only exist in retrospect, a 21st-century woman dolled up in period clothing and speech. When faced with a death, one character melodramatically "look[s] to the heavens" and bellows, "Noooooooo!" And a perpetually silent character suddenly starts speaking, causing someone to wonder, "Why didn't you say anything before?" His response? "You didn't ask." (That same exact goddamned scene has played out in front of me in novels and films so many times—usually, as is the case in Here, with the silent figure cast as a Native American—that it demands the creation of word processing software that will electrocute a writer if it is put to paper.) As Evison's scope narrows, so does the book's ambition: Toward the end of Here, characters disappear out of the story at the exact moment that their usefulness to Evison ends.
It's important to note that these are the kinds of authorial errors that occur because of ambition. Evison's debut novel, All About Lulu, was a quiet, funny tribute to the early works of John Irving. Here bears almost no relation to the previous work; you could make the case that Evison and Thornburgh take spiritually equivalent journeys, and the construction of the dam parallels the writing of West of Here. Evison deserves a reader's respect for lunging in the direction of this kind of old-fashioned sweeping saga, and he earns a reader's indulgence by keeping so many disparate elements in play with surprising skill. The heart of Here comes from the characters and settings you'd least expect, and as their minor stories get pushed to the forefront, the structure of the book becomes apparent, like those few anxious moments when a plane takes flight, revealing the relative smallness of the world that just enveloped us.