West of Here: A Novel by Jonathan Evison (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2011. 496 pp)

Born in San Jose, California, Jonathan Evison moved to Seattle and formed a punk band named March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Before writing professionally, Evison worked as a laborer, caregiver, bartender, and syndicated radio host. His first book, All about Lulu, garnered critical acclaim winning the Washington State Book Award. Evison was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation in 2009. Currently, he lives on Bainbridge Island in Western Washington.

Prior Tenants

Have you ever considered the history around the place you live? Since the earth is older than us (I know; strange right?), the land upon which we live knew other plants, animals, people, and structures before us. What did the prior tenants do in that apartment? Did the previous owner of a household struggle with addiction? Strangely, the places we know so well possess a past we can never truly grasp.
With West of Here, Jonathan Evison explores the history of the fictional town, Port Bonita (interestingly, Evison uses some interesting viral marketing for the book by creating a city of commerce website for Port Bonita) located on the Olympic Peninsula of Western Washington. The narrative splits between characters in a frontier settlement during 1890 and those in a fully developed town during 2006. Coupled with characters familialy linked between the centuries, West of Here discusses grand themes of development, environmental degradation, and exploration.

Dam Days

In 1890, the fledgling commonwealth at the edge of the world encounters the very thing it is trying to escape when Ethan Thornburgh sets his sights on building a dam. In 2006, Jared Thornburgh struggles with the last keynote address at “Dam Days” before the Thornburgh Dam gets decommissioned and torn down.
Speaking about Ethan and the drive for development, his love interest complains,

“How was it that destiny forever attached destiny forever attached itself to men? How was it that men presumed destiny to choose them? And what was the act of this presumption but to relinquish responsibility for their actions? And who was left to shoulder the burden, to suffer the consequences of these actions? While men carried on about putting the river to work and illuminating the darkness, what great destiny had attached itself to Eva, if not domesticity” (102)?

Not only does Evison address issues of gender in this new community, he also speaks about relations between Native Americans and the American pioneers. Referencing the building of the dam, the natives discuss,

“’If the river were meant to be stopped,’ she said, ‘then it would not be a river.’
George nodded his affirmation. ‘That is true,’ he said. ‘But a river is easier to stop than a white man’” (282).

Frontier Expeditions as Escapism

With the Olympic Mountains mostly unexplored, Mather begins an expedition into the great unknown. Meanwhile, the 21st century finds Timmon Tillman skipping parole and trekking the same path the first explorers undertook 100 years earlier.
Speaking of Tillman’s desire to escape, Evison writes,

“Surely, somewhere out there, on the banks of some nameless stream, at the foot of some nameless mountain, was a home for Timmon Tillman, two-time loser; a sun-dappled place where he could pass his days unencumbered by the existential hell of the other people, a place to be left alone, a place so remote that the smoke of a campfire would not betray his existence. No more offices, no more leering desk clerks, no more meaningless toiling in body shops or clam factories. No more Gooch, no more walls, no more cells. Just wide-open spaces and bountiful wilderness, a place where he could engage the circle of life, no matter how grueling the business of survival might prove to be” (188).

In short, these time periods reveal deep symmetry behind humanity’s actions.

Born Haunted

West of Here ultimately details the various ways in which humanity seeks escape. Whether by hiding behind machismo while conquering the great unknown, running from typical gender roles, escaping a dead-end job, or finding comfort in sex and recreational drug use, the many characters highlighted in Evison’s work labor tirelessly away from what is known toward what is unknown.
Evison eloquently states,

“’We are born haunted,’ he said, his voice weak, but still clear. ‘Haunted by our fathers and mothers and daughters, and by people we don’t remember.  We are haunted by otherness, by the path not taken, by the life unlived. We are haunted by the changing winds and the ebbing tides of history. And even as our own flame burns brightest, we are haunted by the embers of the first dying fire. But mostly,’ said Lord Jim, ‘we are haunted by ourselves’” (465).

A big book focusing on the many facets of life, West of Here unites grand themes with a readable plot. With a masterful weaving between centuries, the reader gets a glimpse of how progress does not necessarily mean change. Such themes lend observations regarding how humans inevitably try to escape themselves. Set in the pristine forests of the Evergreen State, West of Here is an excellent book and highly recommended.



Leave a Comment