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Round Rock Redemption

Review: Round Rock
Michelle Huneven
Knopf, 295 pages
$24 hardcover

m ichell Huneven's first novel is a curious mix of truth, subtlety and the broad humor of ordinary life. Round Rock is a feel-good story about overcoming alcoholism -- but it's also a damn good literary fiction, filled with gentle irony and clear observations.

Set in the fictional California town of Rito, in the "Santa Bernita" valley, Round Rock's characters live in a place where "gravity has never fully exerted" itself, where things -- and people -- don't work quite normally. Parked cars roll uphill, irrigation ditches move the wrong direction, the ground percolates with tiny earthquakes, and in a town this odd, "even drunks have a fighting chance to fulfill themselves." Rito is something of an otherworldly place, where good things often come out of bad events.

Right out of wrong is essentially the theme of Huneven's novel. This is a story of redemption, and its central saviour is Red Ray, founder of the Round Rock Farm for Recovering Alcoholics. Ray is an ex-laywer who carries the weight of his old alcoholism, a divorce, and his own out-of-shape belly around. Despite all this, Ray spreads happiness wherever he goes. He is gifted with a wise understanding of human weaknesses, and the insight to push people towards positive change. Huneven's own gift is to portray her Christ-figure as imperfect, inadequate, shy, and over-worked.

Red Ray is complemented by Round Rock's cast of complex and paradoxical supporting characters.

There's sweet and funny singer Libby Daw, whose innate generosity is complicated by her own victimhood. Billie Fitzgerald, a rich landowner, seems nearly the opposite of Libby -- wisecracking, obnoxiously opinionated, and often mean-spirited. It is another credit to Huneven's insight as an author that Billie and Libby don't seem so far apart by the end of the novel, when we learn Billie's dark secret.

Finally, there is Lewis Fletcher, a smart, self-absorbed PhD candidate, who lands drunk and bemused in Round Rock. Lewis is irritating, unamusing, and narcissistic. In reading what is obviously a story of personal redemption, when I met Lewis, I thought immediately of C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce, where self-absorption is described as the essence of hell. Fortunately, in Round Rock, Lewis is merely human, and every day is moving further and further from the hell of his own making.

And somehow, even with a character this annoying, Huneven helps her readers to empathize with Lewis' mere humanity. Lewis may always remain this self-focused, yet there is hope for maturity, and there is hope for us, in seeing his weaknesses, and allowing ourselves to recognize his thoughts in ourselves. This portrayal is one of Huneven's most powerful. It displays the authenticity of her writing that rarely, if ever, edges towards saccarchine platitudes.

Round Rock shows us why small gestures matter. This is not a novel of politics, not a novel of action, and not even a novel of revolutionary inner change. Huneven forces us to view the mundane through the transforming lense of beautiful prose. Not only do we see love, life, and alcoholism differently, but we also learn about sexuality, fishing, farming, closing a nose-bleed, and cooking.

Huneven has been writing for a long time. Currently, she writes as a restaurant critic and freelancer for the Los Angeles Times, Harper's Magazine and other publications. Her insights here show that she both knows southern California, and knows the human heart.

Huneven is sure to be compared to Anne Tyler, or even to Garrison Keillor. Yet her sensibility has more in common with Louise Erdrich or E. Annie Proulx. Like Erdrich, she creates characters who are eccentric and complex. Often they are absurd and often seem purposeless -- yet she believes they have every intention of achieving their dreams. Drawn by the strange gravity at work in Rito, California, Huneven's characters are drawn inevitably towards their destinations, absurd and individualistic as they are.

Round Rock is ultimately a positive novel about possibilities. The absurdity of Huneven's perspective made it more real to me with every sentence. I wanted to believe.

--   Ned Hayes


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