A microcosm of Los Feliz life

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

The spirit of William James haunts Michelle Huneven's second novel -- pioneering psychologist, advocate of the quintessentially American philosophy of pragmatism, brother of novelist Henry James and author of a perennial bestseller, "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It isn't just that some of the characters are descendants of James, or that he happens to be a favorite quarry of psychics angling for messages from beyond the grave. James' generosity, humor and tolerance shine in Huneven's writing as well.

"Jamesland" is the story of several residents of the Los Feliz district -- ranging from a movie star to homeless people camped along the Los Angeles River -- whose lives are missing something essential or have gone completely bust. They meet at a food bank, at a Unitarian church, in Griffith Park; they fall in and out of love; they struggle, sometimes alone, sometimes together, for better jobs and peace of mind. Just below the surface -- and sometimes in full awareness -- their search is for God, or at least for an idea of transcendence that the skeptical modern mind can accept.

"How do people live in this world?" asks Pete Ross, a former chef whose fall from marriage and the middle class involved outbursts of rage, suicide attempts, an affair with an underage girl, heavy medication and a court order to stay away from his ex-wife and son. Now, still snorting with uncontrolled anger, twitching from the drugs' side effects, Pete lives with his mother, a Catholic nun on leave from her convent. She would have taken up the religious life much earlier had she not gotten pregnant as a teenager. In fact, her resentment of Pete is at the root of his problems, but he has nowhere else to go.

Pete might be speaking as well for Alice Black, James' great-great-granddaughter, who lives in a fine Craftsman house in Los Feliz once inhabited by her great-aunt, Kate Gordon, who spent 40 years writing and rewriting the first chapter of a book about James and his family, so obsessed with the project that she often confused Alice with the great man's mother, wife and sister, Alices all.

Alice Black is unsure about her identity -- she has tried and discarded various jobs, from biologist to bartender, and suspects that Kate, who had an affair with a married man, might actually be her mother. Alice, too, is an Other Woman: Her lover, Nick Lawton, is married to a movie star, Jocelyn Nearing, whose Meg Ryan-like career as an ingenue is fading. Waiting for them to divorce, Alice is willing to put her life on indefinite hold.

One night Alice chases a pregnant doe out of the house and has to calm Kate, awakened by the ruckus. But Kate has been living in a nursing home for years. Was the deer, too, a hallucination? If so, what does it symbolize? Partly to find answers -- and partly to spy on Jocelyn, who is a member of the congregation -- Alice attends Unitarian services led by the Rev. Helen Harland, a 6-foot former prison guard.

Helen isn't having an easy time either. She wants friends, but people are either intimidated by her clerical status or smitten, as Pete is (an emotion she dismisses as the same "transference" patients feel for psychotherapists). She wishes the old-line secular humanists who run the church weren't quite so spooked by the tiniest reference to Christianity in her sermons. Helen's boyfriend advises her to quit, but Helen, like William James, believes that faith -- almost any kind of faith -- is good for people, if they can only be persuaded to have some.

It would be easy to satirize this milieu and these characters, but Huneven resists the temptation (though individual episodes, such as an attempt to contact James through a female medium who "channels" an egotistical Mexican male "control" named Gustavo, are quietly hilarious). Like her well-received first novel, "Round Rock," "Jamesland" is a comedy solidly grounded in Southland history and psychological realism. It rebuts the popular notion that Californians, especially troubled Californians, are floating in an existential void, a bubble of self-indulgence, alienated from life as it's lived everywhere else.

Like "Round Rock" too, "Jamesland" is an ensemble piece with no dominant protagonist. We are free to pick our favorites. Everyone in what Huneven, twisting James' title, calls "the variety show of religious experience" -- from Jocelyn, who wants to start a new career as a restaurateur with Pete doing the cooking, to Alice's new boyfriend, the hard-muscled, earnest, devout Dewey Hupfeld, to a homeless white transvestite who affects an African American dialect -- is taken seriously, which makes us, the readers, feel likewise respected. And refreshed.

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