GOING UNDER: A Novel by William Luvaas (Putnam: $23.95; 318 pp.). Jerri Tillotson, in the middle of "Going Under," tells her preteen daughter to "act normal." Meena, who's taken to behaving like a spider, begins to wonder what "normal" means. Hiding booze in syrup and soap bottles, like Jerri? Hanging out with the bikini-wearing women next door, like her father Don? Becoming excited by half brother Olson's physical presence, or raped by a blood relative, like Meena herself? "Going Under" is told through Meena, her full brother Jeff and Jerri's sister Debbie, and the kids'-eye-view gives this novel compelling accounts of their efforts to cope with the family's disintegration. Although the sexual abuse of Meena looms large in the book in terms of plotting, it's almost unnecessary, for Jerri's alcoholic decline--set in motion, it seems, by the incest she herself suffered as a child--is more absorbing, mainly because it puts such pressure on the three children. Olson becomes a swaggering bully; Jeff the honest boy who aims to please; Meena the freak and spy, always vigilant, always suspicious.
When we meet the Tillotsons, Meena and Jeff have just survived being run over by a truck, fortuitously saved by wet Oregon mud, and it seems at that moment the family has used up most of its luck. Thereafter their lives spiral ever downward, things getting even worse when they move to Southern California in an attempt to start anew. Don loses his job and his perspective; Jerri loses touch and, more slowly, her mind, and Debbie tries but fails, until the last moment, to pick up the pieces. "Going Under" moves slowly, full of observation more than development, but does capture well the ways in which, as Jeff says as a teen-ager, "What was once your home becomes foreign territory."