Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Small World, by Jonathan Evison: Striving Together for the American Dream

Jonathan Evison's new novel Small World is, no exaggeration, his masterpiece. He had mentioned on Facebook a few years ago that he felt like this is the novel he was born to write. And he wasn't wrong. 

Small World is a huge, ambitious, but incredibly immersive Great American novel about how we're all connected in striving for the Great American Dream. A huge cast of diverse characters both in the present and in the 19th century populate this novel with interconnected stories about how beating injustice and flourishing in this Great American Experiment is at its essence a team sport. 

So as a train speeds through a snowy night in Oregon, several passengers on this train are connected in ways they couldn't possibly know. A mom trying to give her basketball prodigy son a leg up. A woman escaping her abusive boyfriend. A family making a huge change in their lives. And the train engineer, on his last run before retirement. We get the stories of each of these people, but as importantly, we get the story of the 19th century ancestors of each of these people. An enslaved person who escapes in Illinois. Irish immigrant twins who try to make their ways in Chicago and then the sprawling West. A Chinese immigrant who pans for gold in California. And a Native American girl who yearns for open spaces and freedom. 

It's a lot, for sure. But Evison nails it! You never feel overwhelmed or have trouble keeping these characters straight. Without question, this structure was risky: There are literally eight different strands of story (and really nine, because we get both of the Irish twins' stories), and so this could've easily gone sideways. 

But I couldn't wait to get back to each story. Would the Irish twins find each other after they're separated? Would the basketball superstar get his time to shine? Would the woman escaping her a-hole boyfriend truly escape? How are all these people connected, both in the past and the present? But most importantly, how would all of these characters be able to overcome injustice, inequity, and a deck stacked against them to strive toward their American dream? 

To be honest, I'm just about done with long novels of interconnected stories (thanks a lot, Cloud Cuckoo Land). Everyone's doing it now and it's getting a little tiresome. But I'm glad I got this one in under the bell before I got tired of these, because this one is a paragon of the genre. If you've been a New Dork Review reader for any amount of time, you know I'm huge Evison fan. I've read everything he's written, and I can happily report this novel represents a major step forward for him as a writer. I've really enjoyed all his novels, but this is my favorite since The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is still my favorite of his. But this is now a very close second. Highly, highly recommend. 

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