Want to catch a rising star?
“All About Lulu,” the witty, wise, and achingly poignant debut novel that launched Jonathan Evison onto the nation’s literary radar in 2008, remains one of my favorite discoveries of the past 10 years. Moving from Soft Skull Press to Algonquin Books and the veteran stewardship of editor Chuck Adams in 2011, Evison then delivered a blockbuster one-two punch with “West of Here,” a sprawling historical novel that was his first New York Times bestseller, and “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” a touching road-trip comedy that will soon be a major motion picture starring actor Paul Rudd.
Happily for his growing legion of fans, Evison is not only an author on the rise, he’s also one of those singular literary talents that seem to improve with every outing.
That trend continues with “This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” Set in the Pacific Northwest and spanning the years between 1936 and 2015, the novel is, as its title suggests, an anachronic examination of an ordinary life. But no life is ordinary when viewed under Evison’s probing microscope, where the frailties of the human condition remain ever in focus, and where fears and foibles, scabs and long-buried secrets beckon the reader from the margins of the slide.
The Harriet Chance of 2015 is a 78-year-old widow of middle-class means and Episcopalian values. She has two grown children, a best friend named Mildred, and, thanks to a silent-auction prize that remained unclaimed at the time of her husband Bernard’s death, two unexpected tickets for an Alaskan cruise. So what’s to prevent Harriet and Mildred from packing their Samsonite bags and venturing northward, trusting Harriet’s son Skip or her quasi-estranged daughter Caroline, a recovering alcoholic, to keep an eye on the house?
Well, ghostly visitations from Bernard, for one thing, and Mildred’s abrupt and mysterious cancellation for another. Then when Caroline signs on in Mildred’s stead, Harriet is forced to revisit not only her roles as wife and mother but also, as the flashbacks mount and the cruise assumes allegorical dimensions, the totality of her life’s triumphs and sorrows, its compromises and deceptions.
“The movie is forgettable. As in, you couldn’t remember it if you had to. Something Irish, or about Ireland, with a guy and a girl. But that’s not the point. The point is, it’s movie night, and the Chances are still making an effort late in life, though neither one of you likes to drive after dark, and my God, it’s nearly ten dollars a ticket, even for seniors. Not to mention, you haven’t seen a good film in two years (not that you can remember that one, either.) “You can’t remember getting old.
You can’t remember when exactly you started carrying umbrellas just in case, when you started scheduling your weekly hair washings, oversalting your food, or reusing zipper-lock bags. It happened gradually. The years just wore you away, dulled your edges, leached the color from your face, and flattened you out like river rocks. Again, not the point. The point – and not to belabor it – is: you’re old, sapless and enfeebled, especially Bernard, and yet, you’re still trying, both of you. Still able. The world shakes its fists and rolls its eyes at you as you gum up traffic and slow down lines, and pay for every blasted thing with exact change, but by God, the Chances are not about to cloister themselves at home with their creamed corn and network television, no, they’re still out there wrestling with the world at large, still going toe-to- toe with progress, still absorbing change, slowly.”
Evison’s special gift as a writer is his ability to translate to his readers the empathy he so obviously feels with his characters. He is also, it must be said, a very funny man. Combine those attributes with a confident voice and an effortless prose style, and the result is a rare novel of heart and substance in the best American tradition of J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee.
Chuck Greaves is the award-winning author of four novels, most recently “The Last Heir” (Minotaur.) Visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.