On Bainbridge Island, across Elliot Bay from Seattle, novelist Jonathan Evison, 42, is sitting back with a beer in the restaurant his brother-in-law recently opened, contemplating his good fortune: a happy marriage, a healthy son, and a second book: West of Here (Algonquin). His brother-in-law appears, tattooed arms straining, wielding a massive side of smoked pork. "Just pulled it out of the cooker," he says to Evison. "Wanted to show it to you."
Steam rises from the meat and grease drips onto the floor. The restaurant's inspiration—the generations of clam diggers, chicken farmers, and vegetable growers who have made Bainbridge island their home—is not far from Evison's inspiration for West of Here, set in a fictional town nearby. The novel is bighearted, elaborately plotted, and informed by the author's affection for people and places, past and present, the real and the imagined.
Evison's life hasn't always been so blessed. He turned to books and music during a difficult childhood and decided he would become a writer when he was in third grade. As an adult, he collected rejection letters while working a series of unsatisfying jobs and seeing his first marriage fall apart. "I never wanted to be anything but a writer, and I never let go of it," he says. "Then, when I was 40, somebody decided to start publishing me." That first novel, indie hit All About Lulu (Soft Skull, 2008), was crowned by a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship and the Washington State Book Award. "Everything worked out like a fairy tale," he says.
Many of the motley characters in Evison's second novel display the same dogged determination: an antisocial parolee who gives up on civilization and disappears into the wilderness to start over, an environmental scientist who devotes herself to saving salmon and turns a deaf ear to conjecture about her sexual orientation, a single mom whose resolve to leave her abusive boyfriend is galvanized by her son's mysterious psychological trauma. These characters are survivors and fighters who are transformed by hard times. "Maybe a theme that touches all of my work," Evison says, "is people reinventing themselves."
West of Here tackles reinvention on a grand scale. Set in fictional Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula in western Washington State, the novel offers a vision of history through what Evison calls "a kaleidoscopic lens," piecing together more than 40 individual points of view, and shuttling back and forth between the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 21st. In 1890, after the frontier town is ravaged by fire, the dandy-turned-dam-builder Ethan Thornburgh considers the wreckage, sensing that "something had been born in the fire, though it was hard to pin down what, and harder still to measure. Perhaps Port Bonita was not an address, after all, not even a place, but a spirit, an essence, a pulse—a future still unfolding." By 2006, the Thornburgh dam that had powered the town for a century is slated for demolition—another fold in the town's future, another form of destruction that also signals rebirth—in the service of restoring the Elwha River.
The changeable course of the Elwha, the impenetrable Olympic Mountains, and the region's notoriously inclement weather transform the characters in West of Here at least as much as the region is transformed by them. Evison and his characters share a deep connection to the region's forest and coast, and he laments the impact humans have had on the land. "As a result of manifest destiny," Evison says, "we gutted our resources."
When Evison's not writing, he is camping on the Olympic Peninsula. He estimates that he spends almost 100 days a year in the woods, driving his '76 Dodge Motorhome past the heavily logged tracts of land he describes as "stump-ridden moonscape."
Evison wears his grandfather's fedora. His son bears the first name of his other grandfather. Clearly, he is grounded in the past, though he seems to be looking ahead at least as much as he looks back. His next novel, which he characterizes as "a novel of the heart," is finished, and he's at work on his fourth. "I'm just so excited," Evison says. "I just love to write."n
Erin Gilbert holds an M.F.A. from Bennington College and is currently at work on her first novel.