"Round Rock," the first novel by Los Angeles writer Michelle Huneven, is a vivid examination of the satisfactions and perils of living in small communities. Brush fire rumors, ancient feuds, busybody intrusions, neighborly support, family secrets, race and class rifts: It's all here in Rito, Calif., population 750. And here as well is Rito's own model drunk farm, Round Rock Ranch for Recovering Alcoholics.
Huneven is an audacious novelist, casting the narrative light evenly on various idiosyncratic characters while summoning the generationally and culturally distinct voices of a diverse population. She forfeits fashionable audience-protagonist cathexis for a more complex portrayal of multiple situations and relationships, thereby introducing readers to this tight, fractious community as if they were newcomers, free to form their own fresh allegiances.
At a time when 12-step programs are the focus of so much intellectual critique and ridicule, Huneven treats the Alcoholics Anonymous program as a serious philosophical framework for her story. We meet characters drinking, drying out, drinking again, attending AA meetings, laughing at the 12 steps to sobriety, taking their moral inventories, making amends, asking forgiveness, even conjuring the ghost of one of the AA founders, Bill W.
Writing fiction about AA is a tricky proposition, likely to tip lesser authors into evangelical sentiment or cynical parody. But Huneven approaches the inhabitants of Round Rock with the same curiosity through which Brian Moore or Graham Greene or Muriel Spark might explore characters in their novels rooted in Catholicism.
"Among the inhabitants of the Santa Bernita Valley, it is commonly believed that nothing there ever goes according to plan." Yolanda Torres, who moved to the valley as a young nun, is now the proprietor (with her husband Luis) of Happy Yolanda's bar and grill. Billie Fitzgerald, raised by conservative local parents to marry a high WASP Stanford graduate, winds up as a single mother ruthlessly running a citrus empire. Classical violinist Libby Daw, who arrived from New Orleans with her rich, famous architect husband, now lives alone in a tacky house trailer and fishes for her supper. Red Ray, a middle-aged lawyer, naively has purchased Round Rock to woo back his wife. After she deserts him for his raging drunkenness, he opens up the ranch as a detox halfway house. Lewis Fletcher, a coke-head doctoral student, falls in love and fury with most, if not all, of the above people.
This lively narrative about character and spirituality is also a seductive story about place. Imagining Rito to be near Ojai, Huneven is as attentive to Southern California climate and landscape as she is to quirks of human behavior. "The drive up to the Fitzgerald abode was flanked by a particularly graceful type of eucalyptus, their trunks virtually bark-free, pink and naked as scalded flesh."
And here is Lewis setting out one morning: "The sun was strong, the air smelled of hot sage and warm, standing water. Parallel jet trails had blown into broad horizontal stripes, like an overarching rib cage. The lake water was dark green, shiny and wrinkled."
The Santa Bernita Valley forms a crucible of longing, romance, jubilation, grief and stunning endurance. Huneven continues to shuffle characters into unpredictable but credible interactions and conundrums: Will unpretentious Red fall in love with cool, powerful Billie? Who is the father of Billie's teenage son? Will Lewis recover from his addiction? From his resentment of Red? Can Libby reclaim her confidence and her music? Why does former resident David Ibanez haunt the ranch and Rito? Huneven follows people into disaster, toward recovery, through estrangements of venerable vintage to marriage and reproduction, all against a shifting backdrop of concealed desire and hidden memory. Essentially, "Round Rock" chronicles an odyssey toward forgiveness, toward absolution of self and others.
This novel has its shortcomings. The dialogue gets stiff; some of the spiritual insights are embarrassingly pedantic. And Huneven, in her eagerness for a broad social canvas, occasionally sacrifices character depth for stereotypes--like those of the bottle-blond waitress, the blue-stocking lesbian intellectual, the facile philosophy professor and the wizened physician who has sagely learned to cure himself. Still, these caricatures are minor voices in a generally rich, real and moving daily chorus.
Huneven portrays a compellingly authentic place. We've all been there. Perhaps some of us still live some part of our days in this familiar setting. "Although long-term valley inhabitants have learned to tailor their expectations, everybody still makes plans, the more elaborate, the better, if only to take delight in the permutations to come. It's a great place to live, they say, if you like surprises: It's just like life, only different." "Round Rock" is a textured drama of individual and cultural history, a promising debut from a writer of moral nerve, sharp wit and uncommon generosity.