A daring tale of dreams in the desert
FICTION:If This Is Home, By Stuart Evers, Picador, 310pp. £12.99
LAST YEAR STUART EVERS’S debut collection of short fiction, Ten Stories About Smoking, arrived in an oversized cigarette box. The packaging was enticing, right down to the circular filters of the chapter headings, which decreased, like a smoker’s pack, as you waded farther into the book. It was a stellar marketing idea, a bauble of a book, but it was also an impressive and complex collection of stories.
One of them, The Best Place in Town, is set in Las Vegas, where a group of friends gather for a stag party and quickly find their jaded friendships and forced camaraderie unseated. In his first novel Evers returns, in part, anyway, to the same city in the desert. But If This Is Home is set not amid casinos and cocktail bars but in another totem to consumerism, the mysterious Valhalla complex.
Briton Josef Novak relocates to Vegas, making money selling real estate and a carefully constructed idea of affluent living. It’s a package based on a lie, but then Josef Pietr Novak is really Mark Wilkinson, who fled England 13 years earlier after the death of his teenage girlfriend, Bethany Wilder. Bethany’s story is juxtaposed with Mark’s, and the story criss-crosses decades and the Atlantic itself.
The Valhalla is run by an unseen boss named Mac, and it’s difficult not to think of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Evers, well aware of this, drops an intertextual hint when Josef refers to Alec Baldwin, who starred in the film version. The success of the business hinges on tiny affectations. “Selling the concept of Valhalla was all about the details. The minutiae . . . We were selling a dream, after all.”
The idea of a dream – American or corporate, or personal reinvention – is central to If This Is Home. Eighteen-year-old Bethany longs to leave England behind for New York. It’s an imagined city, the pop-culture paradise that lives in people’s heads long before they catch their first glimpse of its landmarks. The classic aspirational American dream pursued by Mark/Josef becomes a cloak for the fact that Mark has a litany of unresolved issues where Bethany is concerned. Evers reveals early on that she dies, and Josef’s new life is an attempt to block out what has happened. The corporate pace contradicts his mental stasis, and the book pinballs between the possibilities of success and the actuality of Las Vegas life.
“The first day you arrive . . . you see fat asses . . . sitting with their supersize cups of quarters . . . playing three slots at once, their grins slapped on, wearing their leisure suits loose, sucking on long drinks . . . Las Vegas, you realise, runs not on money, but on the perniciousness of hope.”