Stuart Evers’ debut short-story collection was called Ten Stories About Smoking, but even readers who are aware of this might be astonished by the multitude of burning cigarettes in his first novel, If This is Home. His characters smoke constantly, as if they are in the Forties film noir Out of the Past, where Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer are apparently incapable of breathing except through cigarette filters.
Evers’ novel, also in common with Out of the Past, deals with grim secrets and failed personal reinvention. When Mark Wilkinson flees England and his non-descript northern town for New York City he seems at first to be leaving only the scraps of a misspent youth behind. He makes one close friend in New York and eventually changes his name to Josef Novak. A whole new identity is constructed on a notepad. We are unsure why, except that Mark seems disconnected somehow, possibly callous or even crazy. His story is told in the first person, but we don’t feel the usual invasive privileges. For all we know he could be another Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.
The two friends move to Las Vegas and start a business that aims to comfort the rich, a hedonistic hideout in the desert. Grandly titled the Valhalla, it is reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s highrises and holiday resorts. Its atrium is ‘modelled on the set design for a film about Atlantis that had never been shot’. An underfloor pond filled with exotic fish adds the kind of tackiness that magnetises the rich, and the east wing, comprising 55 floors — where the restaurants and prostitutes reside — is mostly empty.
‘No one had the imagination to populate such places,’ we are told; ‘it was the impression that was important, the suggestion that only a closed, locked door could imply.’
But Mark’s mask of composure is about to slip. He is haunted by memories of his small-town teenage life 13 years earlier. His first love, Bethany, whose narrative alternates with Mark’s throughout, was supposed to go with him to New York, and their sundering forms the central mystery of the novel.
Miraculously the story pivots on its axis without losing momentum. When Mark returns to England — spurred on by an outbreak of violence at the Valhalla — the nostalgia of his teenage landscape after the otherworldly playhouse of Vegas is deftly handled. Mark is returning to fake gas fires, dodgy pubs, ‘the mazy sound of a tractor’ — a universal state of adolescent ennui. ‘Go back to America,’ he tells himself. ‘Home is where real life happens.’
If This is Home begins as a chilly take on greed and ambition and gradually softens to become a more sentimental tragic romance. What’s surprising is that Evers manages to land every dramatic punch, with a final twist that has devastating implications. Some readers may prefer the teasing and austere SF-style set-up to the later emotional denouement, but this is a fresh and eccentric novel that isn’t afraid of attending to the broader pleasures.