If what one of Nicholas Evans’s characters Ed—the diabetic smoke jumping, trustifarian from Kentucky, who is a graduate of the University of Montana’s music department and a struggling composer of musicals—says about Missoula is true, then by rights Evans ought to be the patron saint of this literary ghetto. “Ed … claimed that there were more writers per acre in Missoula than in any other place on the planet.”
And if Nicholas Evans knows anything, he knows about being a struggling writer, which was his gig long before the success of his first novel, The Horse Whisperer. Depending on how you look at it, his story should prove motivational or devastating to the legions of laboring scribblers within the arc of the proverbial swung, dead feline. Evans was struggling along as a journalist and screenwriter, so the story goes, when he heard the story of a man who could talk to horses and wrote the first half of a novel based on the idea. He hit the jackpot when the book’s rights were auctioned off, and the rest is history. By the time it was all over and Robert Redford had jumped on the wagon, Evans was a millionaire something like eight times over. But one should always be wary of depicting a struggling writer’s town, especially one with such a ticklish relationship with fame. Evans paints our city thus:
“[Missoula] was an easygoing place where you could be what you were without others rushing to judge you. … In recent years the town had become a magnet for those who were tired of city life but weren’t yet ready for the log cabin and hauling water from the creek. In Missoula they found the perfect balance. They could be in the mountains in minutes and still have at hand all those truly crucial things in life—like shopping malls, the latest Hollywood movies and a good cappuccino. Living alongside them were the environmentalists: from full-blooded eco-warriors who ate loggers for breakfast to more mild mannered bunnyhuggers, hippies and assorted hangers-on who, at the drop of a recycled paper hat, would hug almost anything and anyone. Then there were the culture-vultures and counter-culture vultures, musicians, painters, sculptors and writers of every description.”
The themes and devices of The Smoke Jumper will probably be familiar to readers of Evans’ work as well as aficionados of more mawkish love stories. The plot is essentially that of a buddy story subverted by the deathless, romantic and seemingly unattainable love of one buddy, Connor (quiet cowboy photographer from Augusta with the rugged good looks) for his buddy Ed’s girlfriend/wife Julia (superbabe from NYC, art therapist, works well with troubled youth). Evans’ three characters are all so dutiful and sensitive and nice that the forbidden love subject is never really broached, even though the plot is always pointed toward the final happy ending, despite the rather bizarre turns that it takes to get there. Instead of giving us characters who live and breathe and act like real people, the book indulges in all manner of high adrenaline, hyper-romantic situations. And there are plenty, including but not limited to: fires in the west, smoke jumping, saddle bronc riding, rock climbing, at-risk youth in the woods, African guerilla warfare and war zone photojournalism from Bosnia and Rwanda.
The trouble with this kind of instant Hollywood pop fiction is that there is just no time or room for subtlety. Evans is witty and imaginative; he has a snappy way of beginning and ending scenes and chapters but the plot and action of his fiction seem hyper-real, predictable and dull for all their glamour. Just as Missoula appears as a caricature of itself, so too do the scenes and what passes for human emotions. Real emotions, like real cities, are not interesting enough or are just too complicated. For example, people in The Smoke Jumper do not laugh, for that is too mundane—they are frequently “reduced to fits of helpless laughter.” Now, how often does that really happen? But the word laughter is just so ordinary; it doesn’t indicate how hilarious the joke really was, which used to be the job of the author.
Or, take the matter of prostitution of Montana scenery, beginning with the proverbial jumping fish of the Bitterroot. Sure, there are plenty of fish in the Bitterroot and no one would argue about their ability to rise out of the water to feed on surface insects. But why is it that in hyper-real fiction, as soon as anyone gets near a river they get to see huge trout (always trout) leaping and jumping as if they are auditioning for a part in the movie? How many times have you been to the river and seen no fish jumping? That, too, is a Montana experience, as any local fisherman will attest.
Consider the likelihood of this crucial scene set high atop a peak in the Bitterroot Mountains where Ed and Julia, who, being unable to conceive a child, embarrassingly ask Ed’s buddy Connor (and Julia’s secret soul mate) to help out and provide the means to a biologically happy ending: “‘But we wondered if you would be … I mean, if you would consider being, the father—the biological—father of our child.’ “The train hit him and for several long moments Ed’s words floated like slow-motion debris in the air between them. From somewhere far below them in the forest came a strange sound which he then dimly recognized as the bugling call of an elk.”
Come on. Certainly those kinds of things can happen. There are elk up there and they do bugle in the rut, but it is only in fiction that these things can all come together just at the right moment. And only in good fiction can these things come about plausibly. But in the rush to find out what happens next in the plot, the reader is played for a fool. But this seems to be the nature of Evan’s fiction—if there be a stinking pile of garbage in a Rwandan refugee camp there will be a big old vulture sitting atop it. Guaranteed.