Definitely the most interesting thing about Stuart Evers’ new novel If This Is Home is the ultra-rich Las Vegas condo complex Valhalla where our narrator is working as the book opens, a great symbol for everything wrong with America right now: a glittering house of cards designed expressly to fleece the empty consumerist one-percenters out of their money, prospective buyers are shuttled around to what they are told are the “most exclusive” clubs and restaurants of the complex during their weekend hard-sell tour, not realizing that the other locked rooms they are passing are in fact completely empty; and are given a complex set of rules they’re admonished to follow but that are never actually enforced, in order to let these people feel like they’re getting away with something they shouldn’t because of their wealth and status.
In fact, it often feels like it was Valhalla that Evers first envisioned when starting to work on this novel, and only afterwards filled in a hasty, cliche-filled three-act narrative to justify the book’s existence, a shame given how strong the Las Vegas parts are. The story of British expat Mark Wilkinson, who has transformed himself into the cooler, more sociopathic alter-ego Joe Novak in America, the book’s structure is basically broken up into three parts — we mostly stay at Valhalla for the first half, until a “shocking act of violence” (according to the dust-jacket synopsis), which in fact is not actually that shocking at all*, inspires him to go back to his small British hometown for the first time in a decade, where we spend the second half of the novel; then weaving in and out of both these halves is a flashback look at the young-love relationship he used to be in, and whose tragic ending is what convinced him to flee to the US in the first place.
[*And seriously, when you set up a place like Valhalla like the owners have, heavily touted to its billionaire customers as a place where “every desire imaginable is accommodated,” I don’t know why it would come as a shock when one of them ends up beating up a prostitute; in fact, I would just assume that the first question out of the mouth of every asshole who shows up is, “Say, when do I get to kill a hooker?”]
Like I said, the first half is interesting enough, presenting us with a fully fleshed-out bacchanalian nightmare and letting us glimpse the boring behind-the-scenes grunt work that makes it happen, and teasing us with a backstory about a past girlfriend who had something bad happen to her, even though we don’t know what, why, or by whom. But the entire second half of the book unfortunately just kind of falls apart, with Evers seemingly not knowing what to do with the story and so falling back on the most hacky tropes possible; Mark spends literally 150 pages wandering around his old hometown doing nothing in particular, with all his old acquaintances and family members disproportionally furious at him merely for leaving 13 years ago and not dropping anyone a postcard (instead they all react to his re-appearance with the kind of anger you would expect if he had actually killed the woman), and eventually with Mark hallucinating the ghost of his ex-girlfriend following him around, being smartass and challenging to him as a way of pushing him into the family confrontations he came there to have, about the most tired cliche you can even evoke in a murder-mystery thriller.
Most disturbingly of all, though, what is teased throughout the book as a “big reveal” about Mark’s girlfriend’s tragic end turns out to not be a big reveal at all, a plot development I’ll let remain a surprise but that I can assure you has not even the tiniest bit to do with the entire rest of the novel; and in fact this horrific act of violence against her seems to only exist in the first place so that Mark himself can go through an emotional journey of self-discovery afterward, a plain and clear example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon that’s been (rightly) receiving so much critical protest in the last few years. That’s a disappointing way to end a novel that started with so much promise; and it’s a shame that Evers could never come up with other things as clever and well-thought-out as Valhalla to fill the rest of this noble but often deeply flawed story. It comes with only a limited recommendation today because of that, a book that some will like more than me, but that most people will be generally disappointed by.
Out of 10: 6.9