West of Here: An ExcerptBy Jonathan Evison
January 16, 2010
On the afternoon of December 14th, in the year of our lord 1889, the good steamer George E. Starr chugged around Ediz Hook in a driving squall, her bowels belching hemlock and cedar, as she pulled into ragged Port Bonita. When she landed at Morse Dock, nobody clamored to greet her. Only a few tatters of wet silk bunting were left to mark the occasion, when young Ethan Thornburgh strode off the George E. Starr onto an empty dock, clutching a lone leather suitcase, with the wind at his back, and his silver-eyed gaze leveled straight at the future. He might have looked like a dandy to the casual observer, a young man of some distinction, all buttoned up in a brown suit with tails, freshly coiffed, smelling of camphor and spices, his cleft chin clean-shaven, a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing. But upon closer inspection, visible through the shifting mothholes in his wool trousers, a trained eye might have observed the shoe polish daubed on his underwear, or the fear in his silver-eyed gaze. One might even have glimpsed the yellow blue remnants of a shiner beneath his right eye.
Ethan stood tall and lean on the dock, flattening his lapel, as he gathered his bearings. This did not take long. The town ran only one direction. Indeed, it had nowhere else to go, hemmed in as it was by heavy timber and steep inclines. There was only Front Street, a ragtag row of structures running east to west in an arrangement which suggested jetsam spewed upon the shoreline.
Skirting the muddy creek which ran down the middle of Front Street, Ethan passed a feed store and a darkened real estate office, before he came upon the Northern Pacific office, smiling inwardly at the town’s prospects. But peering through the mud spattered glass, he found the premises empty. Along the fringes of the creek, the street was heavily rutted, and thick with the churned up mud of wagon teams, though presently Ethan saw none about.
At the Olympic Hotel, he came upon a rather rough looking gent with wild hair and a permanent scowl, who was leading two mules. When Ethan inquired as to the direction of the commonwealth colony, the stranger looked him up and down at length, squinting like a marksman.
“What is it you want with the colony?” he said.
“I want to locate it,” said Ethan.
“Hmph,” said the stranger. He spit on the ground, and jerked his thumb once toward the east. Ethan tipped his hat as he mounted the sodden boardwalk.
Clomping clear-headed past the smoke and laughter of the Belvedere, Ethan was determined to pass without incident. He’d sworn off those immoderate houses of woe and bad judgment. What need of whiskey, he thought, drawing a deep breath, when the rare air of Port Bonita was free for the taking? With purpose and resolve, he proceeded for eight or ten strides before surrendering finally to temptation. Just a nip for courage, he assured himself. A little cheer to color the cheeks. A toast, as it were, to the adventure which lay ahead. Just enough so Eva wouldn’t notice.
Ethan took a stool, and in spite of local custom, removed his hat and set it on the bar before him, revealing a head of straight dark hair parted cleanly down the center. Casting a look around the establishment, it occurred to him that The Belvedere did not live up to its name. In fact, not only did the saloon fail to offer the grand view which its namesake promised, it conferred no view whatsoever, save for a partial vantage of the flooded street, obscured further by the mud-caked windows.
The Frontier Room, thought Ethan, now that’s the name for this saloon. Promptly Ethan produced a small pad and the dull nub of a pencil from his coat pocket, whereupon he jotted his newest idea alongside two-hundred other flashes of inspiration, including 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 revue entitled Will-o-the-Wisp.
Replacing pencil and pad in pocket, Ethan turned to the gentleman next to him— a dough-faced fellow of forty or so, with a steam-shovel jaw— and extended a hand.
“Thornburgh, Ethan, Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr.—?”
Dough Face eyed Ethan doubtfully. “Whatever you’re selling, mister, I’m not buying.”
Undaunted, Ethan forged ahead. “You’re certainly not, my friend, because I’m buying. Barkeep! Two whiskeys,” he called out to Tobin.
The pale man still did not offer a hand. “Dalton Kirigstadt,” he said, as Tobin poured out the whiskeys.
Lowering his hand casually, Ethan looked his new friend up and down; denim trousers, leather boots, coarse hands. “Let me venture a guess,” he said. “Woodsmen?”
“Nope,” said Krigstadt, staring straight ahead.
“Hmm. Well, then, I’m beat. What’s your line of work?”
Krigstadt suppressed a sigh. “Mostly, I haul things,” he said.
“Ah, transportation! Where would we be without it? Especially here, where things are always moving. To transportation,” said Ethan, raising his glass.
Krigstadt offered a less than enthusiastic nod and promptly shot his whiskey in a single throw. “What about you?” he said, wiping his mouth.
“I, Mr. Krigstadt, am a business man.”
Krigstadt eyed him doubtfully, once more; the flashy mustache, the ill-fitting jacket, the moth-eaten trousers. “What sort of business would that be?”
Ethan smiled, and slid his empty glass forward for a refill. “Presently, sir, that remains to be seen. My background is in accounting. But I’ve come here to make a new start, Dalton. May I call you Dalton?”
“That’s my name, ain’t it?”
“Yes, of course. You see, Dalton. I’ve come west because I’m tired of toiling for others. I want to work for myself.”
Krigstadt spun his empty glass. “Don’t anybody work for themselves when you get down to it. Less he can make money out of thin air.”
“Exactly my point,” said Ethan. “You’re a wise man, Dalton Krigstadt. A wise man, indeed.”
Krigstadt slid his empty glass forward on the bar, just as Tobin replenished Ethan’s.
Two more rounds ensued, during which Ethan elucidated at some length upon his status as an idea man. Krigstadt offered little encouragement beyond the act of sliding his glass forward each time the barman approached.
After roughly an hour, Ethan, whose neatly parted hair was now mussed, referred to his pocket watch, plucked his hat off the bar, and stood to leave.
“Well, then, Dalton Krigstadt. It’s been a pleasure. I trust in a town this size we shall soon meet again.”
“Probably,” said Kirgstadt.
On his way out of the Belvedere, pleasantly flush from the whiskey, though not so flush, he imagined, that Eva would notice, Ethan stopped to inquire more specifically as to the colony’s location. On this occasion, he solicited a one-eyed gentleman with what appeared to be gristle in his beard, whom he found leaning against the splintered rail of the boardwalk, carving a naked female form out of a potato. The result was a decidedly stubby female form. The artisan paused long enough to subject Ethan to a thorough visual inspection, whereupon he gruffly issued the coordinates “over the hump.”
Ethan trod onward in the pitchforking rain. His mustache took on water and began to wilt. His heal was squeaking and his suit was heavy with rainwater by the time he arrived at the foot of a stumped and muddy hogback on the east end of town. Twice, he lost his footing clambering up the muddy path, and on one occasion very nearly lost his suitcase down the stubbled hillside.
As he crested the hump, he got his first look at the colony below. He took out his pipe, packed it, and attempted to smoke in the rain, as he looked down upon the Utopia for which Eva had abandoned him. The model commonwealth, free of working class turmoil, free of labor strife, free of corporate tyranny, in short, the solution to the Chinese problem. A mill, a boat shed, a theater, a hotel, a school house. A cluster of little white houses huddled together like Indians on the shoreline. Doomed to failure, thought Ethan, all of it. Human nature would never allow for cooperation on such a scale. But it was nice to think so. How orderly the colony appeared clustered on one side of the hill, with the ragged outpost of Port Bonita on the other, how refined in comparison was its very conception. Yet, it was Port Bonita that called to Ethan, not the colony. Port Bonita, with its crude and youthful vigor, its laughing, belching, bawdy can-do spirit. A pugnacious town, Port Bonita, a fighter, and a damn good bet. It was Port Bonita into which Ethan would invest all his of faith and energy. And one day, God willing, he would invest his fortune there, too.
A full two minutes passed in contemplation before Ethan took notice of the spindly native child standing downhill of him at a distance of some twenty feet, arms akimbo, impervious to the rain. Clearly, there was something odd about this round-faced boy, if indeed, it was a boy. His lips were moving silently. Odder still, were the child’s glacial-blue eyes, almost as pale as his own, which seemed to be focusing on some distant point beyond Ethan. Glancing back over his shoulder, Ethan found himself hemmed in by a muddy hillside.
“Boo!” said Ethan, swinging around.
But the child did not budge.
“Don’t frighten easily, eh? That’s good. That’ll get you far, son. What’s your name?”
The boy remained silently fixated on his distant point.
“I see. Silent, too. That’ll get you even further. My name is Ethan. Ethan Thornburgh. Remember that name, son. One day it will mean something.”
The boy tilted his head slightly to one side and squinted.
“Not convinced, are you? Well, that’s okay. I should think you’re not alone, there. No, I’m rather used to that, by now. But let me tell you a little secret, boy. A man’s destiny is not in the eyes of others. It’s in his own. And that, my young friend, is as good as any bank note.”
Covering one eye with his hand, the boy tilted his head to the other side.
Ethan did the same.
The boy took a step forward, and Ethan too, stepped forward. When the boy stepped back again, Ethan followed suit. This dance continued for several minutes. When it became clear to Ethan that the boy would win any war of repetition, he emptied his pipe with a tap, and replaced it in his hip pocket. Thumbing the thin roll of bills in his pocket, he surveyed the mud-spattered condition of his trouser legs, and laughed.
“Good day,” Ethan said, doffing his soggy hat to the boy. He then turned and began trudging east down the squelchy path toward the colony.
Thomas found his mother seated alone by the fire at the mouth of the creek. The rain had let up, but the fire still hissed, unfurling a ribbon of black smoke toward the shoreline. Thomas sat beside her. His lips stopped moving. His mother did not look up, but out across the strait. Thomas scooted closer, but still she did not acknowledge the boy. Upbeach to the east, a chain of six fires at roughly even distances unfurled their own black ribbons into the wind. Thomas could hear, just above the lapping shoreline, the low chatter of his people, and occasionally the shrill voice of a white man in their midst.
I wish I had a steam-shovel jaw.
Some day… some day.
Does this mean that you propose to go under the knife, Simon?
…gads, why would you want that?
Jon: I just like adjectives.
Duke: In the sense of plastic surgery, or in the sense of Magua from the film version of Last of the Mohicans?
I no longer remember such a scene with Magua, but if you’re referring to scalping, I definitely don’t recommend it. The emotional toll alone is a bitch.
You feed the senses, you do, J.
. . . thanks, duke . . . i should say that this excerpt is only representative of part of west of here . . . only half the story takes place in 1889, the other half takes place in 2006 . . . this part of the novel is very atmospheric and “historically” (there’s and adjective for you, simon) . . .but overall the novel is much, i dunno, weirder . . .
“a waxed mustache mantling his lip like two sea horses kissing”
I do love how you write.
This is going to be quite different from Lulu, isn’t it?
indeed, irene, much different from lulu . . . lulu was a comfortable write . . .west of here was a real mind-fuck which forced me to push myself into new and uncomfortable places as a writer, which is my goal with every book from here on out . . .the most exciting thing for me as a writer is this feeling that i’m still learning to write . . . that said, i think there are a number of fundamental elements to the storytelling and narrative approach that link these two novels, os folks who liked lulu should find plenty to like, i think . . .
When is it coming out?
pub date is october 5, but if things go anything like they went with lulu, it’ll be on shelves in august . . .galleys come out next month . . .
Bring on the weirder, brother! Looking forward to your reading in Olympia. See you there.
. . . oh, you’ll get weirder, jos, in spades! totally, looking forward to oly!!! almost got the free beer for the event lined up!
God I love this shiz… Keep up the great work. We will be talking about this stuff when we’re 80 you know.
. . . here’s hoping i MAKE 80!
I’m ready to read this NOW JE!
. . . i’m ready for you to read it now, too, ker-bear!
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