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Jamesland

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Overview

Jamesland, the buoyant second novel by Michelle Huneven, critically acclaimed author of Round Rock, is a witty, sophisticated, and deeply humane comedy of unlikely redemption.

When thirty-three-year-old Alice Black discovers a deer in her dining room after fighting with her boyfriend, she wonders if she’s going crazy. Pete Ross, forty-six, knows he’s crazy. He’s wrecked his marriage, slashed his wrists, and done time in a psychiatric institution, and now he's being cared for by ...

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Jamesland

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Overview

Jamesland, the buoyant second novel by Michelle Huneven, critically acclaimed author of Round Rock, is a witty, sophisticated, and deeply humane comedy of unlikely redemption.

When thirty-three-year-old Alice Black discovers a deer in her dining room after fighting with her boyfriend, she wonders if she’s going crazy. Pete Ross, forty-six, knows he’s crazy. He’s wrecked his marriage, slashed his wrists, and done time in a psychiatric institution, and now he's being cared for by his mother, who’s a nun. Forty-five-year-old Helen Harland, a spirited Unitarian Universalist minister, is being driven crazy by her hostile church administration. Living in Los Feliz, California, the three meet at Helen’s Wednesday midweek services. Though initially incompatible, the sheer force of Helen’s idiosyncratic ministering (her “variety show of religious experience”)–paired with Alice’s illustrious ancestor William James–proves to be a catalyst for friendship and a kind of transcendence. Generous and compassionate, Michelle Huneven delivers a joyful new novel about love, faith, and a few wayward souls waiting for life to begin.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Irresistible. . . . This divine comedy offers a glimpse of transcendence that’s refreshingly believable.” —The Atlantic Monthly
“Michelle Huneven is a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent, and Jamesland is a marvel.” —Richard Russo

"Michelle Huneven's joyous new novel, Jamesland, is the best thing for the blues since lithium. . . . Squeaking, squelching, sloshing, the hearts of Huneven's characters beat a shaky rhythm, beside which a reader's own can't help thumping along. Like Anne Tyler, whom readers found long before the prize-givers ever did--or like the foxglove, which was soothing hearts centuries before apothecaries ever pestled it into tablets–Jamesland is good for what ails you." –San Francisco Chronicle

Offbeat and vigorously written. . . . Engrossing . . . Jamesland is a winning place to while away some time." –The New York Times Book Review

“Generosity, humor and tolerance shine in Huneven’s writing.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“A delicate tale of personalities and longing. . . . The real landscape of Jamesland is an interior one, the intersection between the tangible and the not-quite-real.” –The Oregonian

"A great L.A. novel. . . . One of the goals of the novel since the beginning of the form has been to realistically capture love, that ever-flitting butterfly, in its contemporary incarnation. Huneven is one of our few writers who can deliver an authentic love story, with characters as unlikely for redemption as possible, as failed and weird and hopeless as ourselves. She somehow nudges them into relationships that change the feeling of everything." –LA Weekly

"Jamesland is gold. Michelle Huneven gives as good as any reader can hope to get." –Amy Bloom

“Michelle Huneven's endearingly comic second novel, Jamesland . . . looks steadily at the convoluted relationship between religion and spirituality. . . . She regards her creations with a benevolently comic eye.” –The Columbus Dispatch

"Jamesland is a blessing of a book. Michelle Huneven proves again that forgiveness has a wisdom of its own, and that real joy can grow in the compost of failure and frailties. Huneven’s characters embrace each other in all their brokenhearted striving; they renew our buried hope that we all may be loved as life finds us—imperfect, lost, blameworthy, full of good intentions. The compassion in this book is a rare and welcome gift. Gracefully written, shrewd in its observations, precise in its generosity, Jamesland is a wonderful book." –Anne Michaels

The New York Times
Offbeat and vigorously written, it is engrossing in part because it wears its preoccupation with the paranormal so lightly.—Jennifer Egan
Publishers Weekly
Like her critically acclaimed Round Rock, Huneven's sophomore effort explores a tightly knit community of troubled eccentrics. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, a motley handful of residents attends Helen Harland's casual and inclusive services at the local Unitarian church. Helen-who can't interest her boyfriend in her preaching profession, and who battles the church board over matters such as men holding hands in the sanctuary-has her own struggles with faith, yet finds herself inspiring it in some of Los Feliz's other lonely souls. There's Alice Black, hot off a string of bad love affairs (including one with the husband of a local movie star) and living in a house belonging to her great-aunt Kate. The intermittently lucid Kate, now ensconced in a rest home, is still pursuing a life-long writing project related to her illustrious ancestor, the philosopher William James. And then there's crazy Pete Ross, a failed husband, father and chef now living with his mother, a nun, as part of his therapy. Spunky Helen maneuvers dinners and other get-togethers where people seemingly at odds grow (warmly and predictably) to know and love one another. More intelligent and quirky than the usual melodrama, this novel succeeds in exploring the slow and halting journey to self-acceptance. But this level of realism also becomes problematic: the narrative is slow-going, and the author's fondness for flashbacks further decelerates the plot. The theological conversations and the extensive information about William James may also be a turn-off for some readers. For those who are patient, however, this is a gentle, well-turned story of the search for redemption. (Sept. 16) Forecast: Round Rock was a New York Times Notable Book and an L.A. Times Best Book of the Year, so review attention will be strong, but readers may find Huneven's latest a bit underwhelming. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Alice Black is having an affair with a man married to a famous actress, but when she gets dumped again, she tries to figure out why she keeps falling for men who aren't available. Helen Harland, who is struggling with her new role as minister of the Morton Unitarian Universalist Church, meets Alice when she attends church after seeing an intriguing flyer about Wednesday night services. Pete, who has suffered a breakdown after losing his business, wife, and son, also attends Helen's church. He appears gruff and crazy but is at heart a decent man-and he's a whiz of a chef who knows Helen from their work together at a food pantry. As the novel unfolds, Alice, Helen, and Pete become fast friends. Engaging and humorous, this new work from Whiting Writer Award winner Huneven (Round Rock) takes on modern relationships, questions of faith, issues of sanity, and what makes life meaningful. The novel is chockfull of small moments that meld to create a seamless read. Recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/03.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Interpreting the past and managing the future absorb the energies of four unconventional souls in this amiably loose-jointed second from Huneven (Round Rock, 1997). The arresting Prologue introduces Alice Black, a 30ish semi-recluse unhappily involved with a married man, on the night when she's awakened by a deer that has wandered into her house. Actually, her aunt Kate's house, occupied by Alice while Kate, a sharp-witted natural aristocrat in her late 70s, languishes in a nursing home not far from her property in the LA neighborhood of Los Feliz. The opening chapters gradually contrast Alice's haphazard connections to anything with her aunt's preoccupation with her distinguished grandfather: the philosopher and psychologist William James, the subject of Kate's ongoing unfinished "novel." Between visits to Aunt Kate, Alice absorbs the shock of abandonment by her lover Nick (who won't leave his movie star wife), goes to work as a typist for a scholar researching "the posthumous appearances and communications of William James" (as reported by James's self-proclaimed psychic friends), and allows herself to fall for handsome, perfect (and dull) officemate Dewey Hupfeld ("the Knight of nice"). Meanwhile, Alice bonds variously with Unitarian minister Helen Harland (whose innovative services offend her church's bureaucracy) and wretched Pete Ross (born Pedro Rosales): unemployed, grossly obese, estranged from his ex-wife and young son, possessed by both suicidal musings and an uncontrollably nasty temper. This is Anne Tyler/Gail Godwin/Jon Hassler territory, and Huneven works it efficiently, scattering expository details throughout her characters' successive communications, meetings, andquarrels. The only problem: her warm and fuzzy empathy with eccentrics and misfits, initially gratifying, is hard to sustain over the course of a long novel. Still, Jamesland meanders agreeably, and gets better as it goes along. Another charmer from a gifted and very likable writer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375713132
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/14/2004
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 598,130
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle Huneven received a Whiting Writers' Award in 2002, and has also won a GE Younger Writers Award in Fiction and a James Beard Award. She is presently a restaurant reviewer for the LA Weekly. Her first novel, Round Rock, was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. She lives in Altadena, California.
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Read an Excerpt

1

Alice lived in her great-aunt's large bungalow on Wren Street in a desirable neighborhood known as Los Feliz. A hundred and fifty years before, Corporal Jose Vicente Feliz was awarded a Spanish land grant for his role in civilizing the unruly new pueblo of Los Angeles. Rancho Los Feliz--or the Happy Farm as it was often called--was a small, wealthy fiefdom with two thousand acres of mountainous wooded terrain teeming with game, a thousand more in flat arable fields and pastureland, and several miles of riverbed. Corporal Feliz enjoyed this windfall for eight short years. His savvy widow, Dona Verdugo, remarried and held on for decades, establishing legal title to the land once Mexico gained independence from Spain. Her heirs were less tenacious; several daughters sold their holdings at a dollar per acre, and the primary heir, Antonio, bequeathed his major holding to the family lawyer.

Today, the mountainous area is more or less intact as Griffith Park, but the rest of the Happy Farm went the way of most Southland ranchos: subdivided again and again into residential home sites.

In 1919, an Arts and Crafts architect built half a dozen homes in the lower hills of the district. 432 Wren Street was a four-bedroom, three-bath bungalow set deep in a double lot; its selling points included river stone and clinker brick masonry, teak wainscoting sanded to a skinlike smoothness, cedar-lined closets, large porches--one of them for sleeping--and a two-car garage. The kitchen was unusually, gloriously large--the architect's mother talked him into this as well as a potting shed and wood-lath greenhouse. 432 sold to a prosperous young couple from Milwaukee, who raised three children there before selling it in 1946 to Alice Black's great-aunt.

When Aunt Kate made her offer on the house, there was consternation at the bank. Here was a single twenty-five-year-old woman from San Francisco intending to live alone in a family-sized residence at a time when there was an acute housing shortage for returning GIs. Thousands of these GIs, in fact, were living with their wives and young children not two miles from Wren Street in tin-roofed Quonset huts in Griffith Park. Still, if the truth be told, few if any of the families could afford the Wren Street house, and Kate Gordon could; she had both an independent income and a teaching position, so ultimately the bank had no good reason to turn her down.

Kate did not live alone for long. No sooner had she filled the rooms with furniture than she drove up to Palo Alto, sprang her older brother Walter from a private sanitarium and brought him south to live with her.

Some years before, in his mid-twenties, newly married and teaching political philosophy at Berkeley, Walter Gordon lost his ability to think clearly or tend to himself in a responsible manner. The diagnosis was dementia praecox. Though his parents tried caring for him, he exhausted them with his wild talk until, in the end, they had to institutionalize him. By the time Kate signed his release, he'd found an outlet for his most insistent energies in gardening and happily transferred his talents to Wren Street, turning the prosaic lawn and barbered shrubbery into a densely wooded private botanical garden.

Except for short stints back at the sanitarium for "stabilization," or when Kate went traveling, he lived with his sister for forty years. Walter remained tractable and pleasant, so long as he took his medication. He was well into his sixties when he started sinking into what Kate called his "hibernations," dozing for days on end in his Barcalounger and rousing himself only as physical needs dictated. When he stopped getting up to go to the bathroom, Kate had to put him in the VA home. Now eighty, Walter had been fully catatonic for years.

Kate herself retired from teaching at seventy-one, determined to finish a book she'd been writing since college, a novel based on the marriage and family life of her grandfather, the psychologist and philosopher William James. Without a job or brother to structure her days, Kate relaxed her personal habits. She ordered in groceries, lived on toast and tea, spent weeks on end in her bathrobe. The day Alice Black arrived at Wren Street, intending to stay for a semester, her great-aunt was napping at her desk amid perilous stacks of books, manuscript pages and jam-daubed, crumb-encrusted plates.

Alice was twenty-nine years old then, and had just shed both job and lover. (Her boyfriend, who was also her boss at the Riverine Ecology Project, had taken up with the other assistant.) Alice first drove to her parents' home in Lime Cove, a small farm town at the foot of the Sierras, where for two days she lay on her narrow childhood bed, surrounded by boxes of old bank statements, and contemplated her next move.

Before the Riverine Ecology Project, Alice had spent several years as a medical technician in doctors' offices, but she'd had enough of bodily fluids. In college, she'd taken a creative writing class and the instructor, after reading her memoir "The Jewish Farmer's Daughter," had declared hers a talent worth developing--though he might've been unduly impressed that she was distantly related to Henry James, a fact alluded to in the memoir. Or, since Alice ended up sleeping with him, his praise might have been a come-on by someone keen to sleep with a distant relative of the author of The Golden Bowl. (Alice was, in fact, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry's brother William.) At any rate, she had thought often of taking another writing course--nonfiction--on the off chance that a talent did exist. The time, it seemed, was nigh.

She cleaned out her bank account (three hundred dollars and change), added her paltry household goods and microscope to the clutter in her former bedroom, then drove her nine-year-old Toyota Corolla to Los Angeles.

Throughout her childhood, until she went to college, Alice had spent two months each summer with Aunt Kate at the Wren Street house. Her mother, fearing that Alice might become some coarse-mannered rustic, had prevailed upon this favorite aunt to take the girl in hand. Alice had her own suite in the back of the house, which she continued to use throughout her twenties, when she came to town for a biology conference or rock concert or just a weekend visit with Aunt Kate.

This time, however, Aunt Kate, roused from her nap, welcomed her strangely--"Come in, come in. Where's William?"--as if Alice were Alice Gibbens James, wife to their famous ancestor. This lapse was the first of countless, as Aunt Kate was going without sleep for twenty-five or thirty hours at a time. Deep in these binges, she was manic, incoherent and impossible to reach--back there at the turn of the century with the James family. Even when well rested and articulate, she reflexively steered all subjects back to these relatives, many of whom had the same names. Alices, Henrys and Kates were especially plentiful: William James's wife, sister and daughter-in-law were each an Alice, and a sleep-deprived Aunt Kate might address her niece as any one of them--and Alice Black eventually got the hang of knowing which one.

Once settled in her Wren Street bedroom, she enrolled in a ten-week class called "Getting Started in Creative Nonfiction." The instructor, a woman this time, read and admired "The Jewish Farmer's Daughter" and suggested Alice expand it into a book-length manuscript. After numerous attempts, Alice determined that she'd exhausted her interest with the original eight pages. Her class assignments were also praised (as were everyone else's), but writing them had exposed her to a painful shortfall of ideas, the slipperiness of language and tedious, often fruitless hours at a desk: for all that drudgery, she might as well be back in a lab. Moreover, living with Aunt Kate would temper anybody's literary ambitions. Who's to say that Alice herself wouldn't wind up obsessed to the point of madness, and still be unpublished.

Alice did, however, meet a man in the class, Spiro, a stand-up comedian and by far the best writer there. Coming in one night after a date, she found Aunt Kate on the floor of her study, cold and white with shock. She'd fallen asleep in her chair and slid to the floor, breaking both a hip and a leg.

After surgeries, Aunt Kate was sent to the nearby Beverly Manor Rest Home. With her meals and sleeping regimented, her mental state improved; she could surface and converse with much of her preretirement clarity, although all subjects still led to William James et familias. The doctor pronounced this monomania mild, harmless and to some extent age-appropriate, and said she could go home as soon as she could walk again.

Alice's writing course ended and she didn't sign up for another. "I thought I wanted to quit biology and write," she told Spiro, "but maybe I only wanted to quit biology." She stayed at Wren Street ostensibly to assist in her aunt's imminent return. Otherwise Alice's plans for the future were vague. She hoped to move in with Spiro, and maybe go for a master's in field biology--animal behavior or wildlife management, something far from test tubes. In the meantime, being broke, she took a part-time bartending job at the Fountain, a dark, fusty, intermittently hip and increasingly gay cocktail lounge just around the corner from the Beverly Manor.

Four years later, she was still the lone resident at 432 Wren Street and pouring drinks at the Fountain. (Things hadn't worked with Spiro or his successor, a junior college art teacher, but her yearlong affair with Nick Lawton seemed to be reaching a critical juncture.) And Aunt Kate was still at the Beverly Manor, her bones having not knit sufficiently.

Therefore, when Alice awoke one morning and remembered seeing both a deer and her great-aunt in the Wren Street dining room, she dismissed it as a dream.

2

Sore in her lower back and shoulders, Alice padded, blinking, into the kitchen, where the many windows revealed the pink sky of sunrise. She took three aspirin, swallowing them with tap water from her cupped hand, put on the kettle, ground coffee, then sat, arms folded on the cool white enamel tabletop.

Last night, Nick had pried her fingers off his arm. Alice, he'd said. You've got to get on with your life. They'd both had too much to drink. They always drank too much these days, thanks to their situation.

The refrigerator hummed, mourning doves cooed. Alice poured boiling water into the coffee filter, the kettle almost too heavy to hold.

Time to move on, he'd said. But he'd said that before.

Alice went outside to get the paper. The morning was cool and clear. Heavy dew dulled the grass. Sparrows flew bush to bush, diving into the leaves. Spring: maybe that's why she'd dreamt about pregnant deer. She slapped the newspaper against her thigh and scanned the lawns and curtained homes and gleaming cars. Chicken-sized ravens convened noisily in the tall date palm across the street. There were deer in this neighborhood. She'd seen them. Well, twenty-seven or -eight years ago. So never mind about that.

Coming back into the house through the wide oaken door, with light shooting in behind her, Alice noticed long, dull scratches on the hardwood floor. She dropped to her knees, felt the planks and smelled them too, her nose touching the cool wood. Was that vestigial moisture, a faint uric fishiness? That bit of sticky mud mashed against the baseboard, could it possibly be spoor?

In the dining room, the chairs were arranged with military precision--except for one skidded into a corner. And caught in the seam of another chair's back was a tuft of mouse-brown hair. Had the glass over Uncle Walter's baby portrait always been cracked? If the deer was real...

She dashed down the hall. "Aunt Kate?" she shouted, rapping on her aunt's bedroom door. "Are you in there?" She turned the knob and the door popped the way doors do when they haven't been opened since a change in weather. The pink candlewick spread was as neat and perfect as a bakery cake. No unexplained dent in the pillow. No lingering spectral traces.

Alice checked the bathroom, Uncle Walter's old room and Aunt Kate's study, where she dialed the desk phone.

Aunt Kate picked up on the first ring. "Who's this?"

"It's me, Alice Black." Alice gave her full name hoping to avoid being addressed as a historical personage. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, Alice," her aunt said. "You're up early. I'm right in the middle of a paragraph. May I call you back?"

"Yes, but real quick." Alice was relieved that her aunt sounded clear and sharp. "I'm just wondering--did you sleep okay last night?"

"If you mean did I sleep well, why yes, I believe I did."

"You didn't go for a drive last night? Or take a walk?"

"A walk?" Soft chuckle. "No, dear. I worked until ten, then went to bed."

"No strange dreams?"

"No, dear."

"Because something peculiar happened last night--"

"I'd love to hear all about it, but Alice dear, can it wait? May I call you back? I simply can't afford to lose this train of thought."

"Sorry," said Alice. "Bye, then."

She drank coffee and tried to read the newspaper but couldn't concentrate. Had a deer really come into the house? Or was she out of her mind?

Alice returned to the dining room and collected the possible deer hair, placing it in a Baggie. Using a butter knife, she shaved the mud or spoor off the baseboard and put it in another Baggie. Both Baggies went into a shoe box. If worst came to worst, she could send these specimens to a lab for identification.

Maybe she'd just lived too long in this house, which was known for harboring and incubating lunatics. But at age thirty-three, wasn't she out of the woods for adult-onset schizophrenia? Uncle Walter was twenty-five when he showed up to play tennis with his sisters with a lacrosse stick instead of a racquet. He insisted on using the stick even after his youngest sister burst into tears and begged him to stop. Several days later, he arrived at a family dinner wearing a kilt and lurching on crutches although nothing was wrong with his legs. At work, he began haranguing his students with confused, apocalyptic messages and paranoid accusations. All this happened very quickly. One day he was fine, ten days later a complete lunatic. He lost his job, of course. His young wife disappeared a few weeks later, and no one ever heard from her again.

Alice set the shoe box of Baggies on the kitchen counter, poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and reopened the newspaper. She still couldn't concentrate. She needed to talk to someone. She used the kitchen phone, a cheap portable model, and called Lime Cove. "Mom?" she said. "It's Alice."

"Alice, what a surprise," Mary Black said. "You're up early! Everything all right?"

"I'm fine," said Alice. "But this weird thing happened last night--nothing bad--it's just that I woke up and found a deer in the house."

"A live deer?"

"Yes." Alice described chasing it out, and how the deer had trouble on the slick floors.

"Any damage?"

"No, I got it out right away. But it shook me up."

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First Chapter

1

Alice lived in her great-aunt's large bungalow on Wren Street in a desirable neighborhood known as Los Feliz. A hundred and fifty years before, Corporal Jose Vicente Feliz was awarded a Spanish land grant for his role in civilizing the unruly new pueblo of Los Angeles. Rancho Los Feliz--or the Happy Farm as it was often called--was a small, wealthy fiefdom with two thousand acres of mountainous wooded terrain teeming with game, a thousand more in flat arable fields and pastureland, and several miles of riverbed. Corporal Feliz enjoyed this windfall for eight short years. His savvy widow, Dona Verdugo, remarried and held on for decades, establishing legal title to the land once Mexico gained independence from Spain. Her heirs were less tenacious; several daughters sold their holdings at a dollar per acre, and the primary heir, Antonio, bequeathed his major holding to the family lawyer.

Today, the mountainous area is more or less intact as Griffith Park, but the rest of the Happy Farm went the way of most Southland ranchos: subdivided again and again into residential home sites.

In 1919, an Arts and Crafts architect built half a dozen homes in the lower hills of the district. 432 Wren Street was a four-bedroom, three-bath bungalow set deep in a double lot; its selling points included river stone and clinker brick masonry, teak wainscoting sanded to a skinlike smoothness, cedar-lined closets, large porches--one of them for sleeping--and a two-car garage. The kitchen was unusually, gloriously large--the architect's mother talked him into this as well as a potting shed and wood-lath greenhouse. 432 sold to a prosperous young couple from Milwaukee, who raised threechildren there before selling it in 1946 to Alice Black's great-aunt.

When Aunt Kate made her offer on the house, there was consternation at the bank. Here was a single twenty-five-year-old woman from San Francisco intending to live alone in a family-sized residence at a time when there was an acute housing shortage for returning GIs. Thousands of these GIs, in fact, were living with their wives and young children not two miles from Wren Street in tin-roofed Quonset huts in Griffith Park. Still, if the truth be told, few if any of the families could afford the Wren Street house, and Kate Gordon could; she had both an independent income and a teaching position, so ultimately the bank had no good reason to turn her down.

Kate did not live alone for long. No sooner had she filled the rooms with furniture than she drove up to Palo Alto, sprang her older brother Walter from a private sanitarium and brought him south to live with her.

Some years before, in his mid-twenties, newly married and teaching political philosophy at Berkeley, Walter Gordon lost his ability to think clearly or tend to himself in a responsible manner. The diagnosis was dementia praecox. Though his parents tried caring for him, he exhausted them with his wild talk until, in the end, they had to institutionalize him. By the time Kate signed his release, he'd found an outlet for his most insistent energies in gardening and happily transferred his talents to Wren Street, turning the prosaic lawn and barbered shrubbery into a densely wooded private botanical garden.

Except for short stints back at the sanitarium for "stabilization," or when Kate went traveling, he lived with his sister for forty years. Walter remained tractable and pleasant, so long as he took his medication. He was well into his sixties when he started sinking into what Kate called his "hibernations," dozing for days on end in his Barcalounger and rousing himself only as physical needs dictated. When he stopped getting up to go to the bathroom, Kate had to put him in the VA home. Now eighty, Walter had been fully catatonic for years.

Kate herself retired from teaching at seventy-one, determined to finish a book she'd been writing since college, a novel based on the marriage and family life of her grandfather, the psychologist and philosopher William James. Without a job or brother to structure her days, Kate relaxed her personal habits. She ordered in groceries, lived on toast and tea, spent weeks on end in her bathrobe. The day Alice Black arrived at Wren Street, intending to stay for a semester, her great-aunt was napping at her desk amid perilous stacks of books, manuscript pages and jam-daubed, crumb-encrusted plates.

Alice was twenty-nine years old then, and had just shed both job and lover. (Her boyfriend, who was also her boss at the Riverine Ecology Project, had taken up with the other assistant.) Alice first drove to her parents' home in Lime Cove, a small farm town at the foot of the Sierras, where for two days she lay on her narrow childhood bed, surrounded by boxes of old bank statements, and contemplated her next move.

Before the Riverine Ecology Project, Alice had spent several years as a medical technician in doctors' offices, but she'd had enough of bodily fluids. In college, she'd taken a creative writing class and the instructor, after reading her memoir "The Jewish Farmer's Daughter," had declared hers a talent worth developing--though he might've been unduly impressed that she was distantly related to Henry James, a fact alluded to in the memoir. Or, since Alice ended up sleeping with him, his praise might have been a come-on by someone keen to sleep with a distant relative of the author of The Golden Bowl. (Alice was, in fact, the great-great-granddaughter of Henry's brother William.) At any rate, she had thought often of taking another writing course--nonfiction--on the off chance that a talent did exist. The time, it seemed, was nigh.

She cleaned out her bank account (three hundred dollars and change), added her paltry household goods and microscope to the clutter in her former bedroom, then drove her nine-year-old Toyota Corolla to Los Angeles.

Throughout her childhood, until she went to college, Alice had spent two months each summer with Aunt Kate at the Wren Street house. Her mother, fearing that Alice might become some coarse-mannered rustic, had prevailed upon this favorite aunt to take the girl in hand. Alice had her own suite in the back of the house, which she continued to use throughout her twenties, when she came to town for a biology conference or rock concert or just a weekend visit with Aunt Kate.

This time, however, Aunt Kate, roused from her nap, welcomed her strangely--"Come in, come in. Where's William?"--as if Alice were Alice Gibbens James, wife to their famous ancestor. This lapse was the first of countless, as Aunt Kate was going without sleep for twenty-five or thirty hours at a time. Deep in these binges, she was manic, incoherent and impossible to reach--back there at the turn of the century with the James family. Even when well rested and articulate, she reflexively steered all subjects back to these relatives, many of whom had the same names. Alices, Henrys and Kates were especially plentiful: William James's wife, sister and daughter-in-law were each an Alice, and a sleep-deprived Aunt Kate might address her niece as any one of them--and Alice Black eventually got the hang of knowing which one.

Once settled in her Wren Street bedroom, she enrolled in a ten-week class called "Getting Started in Creative Nonfiction." The instructor, a woman this time, read and admired "The Jewish Farmer's Daughter" and suggested Alice expand it into a book-length manuscript. After numerous attempts, Alice determined that she'd exhausted her interest with the original eight pages. Her class assignments were also praised (as were everyone else's), but writing them had exposed her to a painful shortfall of ideas, the slipperiness of language and tedious, often fruitless hours at a desk: for all that drudgery, she might as well be back in a lab. Moreover, living with Aunt Kate would temper anybody's literary ambitions. Who's to say that Alice herself wouldn't wind up obsessed to the point of madness, and still be unpublished.

Alice did, however, meet a man in the class, Spiro, a stand-up comedian and by far the best writer there. Coming in one night after a date, she found Aunt Kate on the floor of her study, cold and white with shock. She'd fallen asleep in her chair and slid to the floor, breaking both a hip and a leg.

After surgeries, Aunt Kate was sent to the nearby Beverly Manor Rest Home. With her meals and sleeping regimented, her mental state improved; she could surface and converse with much of her preretirement clarity, although all subjects still led to William James et familias. The doctor pronounced this monomania mild, harmless and to some extent age-appropriate, and said she could go home as soon as she could walk again.

Alice's writing course ended and she didn't sign up for another. "I thought I wanted to quit biology and write," she told Spiro, "but maybe I only wanted to quit biology." She stayed at Wren Street ostensibly to assist in her aunt's imminent return. Otherwise Alice's plans for the future were vague. She hoped to move in with Spiro, and maybe go for a master's in field biology--animal behavior or wildlife management, something far from test tubes. In the meantime, being broke, she took a part-time bartending job at the Fountain, a dark, fusty, intermittently hip and increasingly gay cocktail lounge just around the corner from the Beverly Manor.

Four years later, she was still the lone resident at 432 Wren Street and pouring drinks at the Fountain. (Things hadn't worked with Spiro or his successor, a junior college art teacher, but her yearlong affair with Nick Lawton seemed to be reaching a critical juncture.) And Aunt Kate was still at the Beverly Manor, her bones having not knit sufficiently.

Therefore, when Alice awoke one morning and remembered seeing both a deer and her great-aunt in the Wren Street dining room, she dismissed it as a dream.



2

Sore in her lower back and shoulders, Alice padded, blinking, into the kitchen, where the many windows revealed the pink sky of sunrise. She took three aspirin, swallowing them with tap water from her cupped hand, put on the kettle, ground coffee, then sat, arms folded on the cool white enamel tabletop.

Last night, Nick had pried her fingers off his arm. Alice, he'd said. You've got to get on with your life. They'd both had too much to drink. They always drank too much these days, thanks to their situation.

The refrigerator hummed, mourning doves cooed. Alice poured boiling water into the coffee filter, the kettle almost too heavy to hold.

Time to move on, he'd said. But he'd said that before.

Alice went outside to get the paper. The morning was cool and clear. Heavy dew dulled the grass. Sparrows flew bush to bush, diving into the leaves. Spring: maybe that's why she'd dreamt about pregnant deer. She slapped the newspaper against her thigh and scanned the lawns and curtained homes and gleaming cars. Chicken-sized ravens convened noisily in the tall date palm across the street. There were deer in this neighborhood. She'd seen them. Well, twenty-seven or -eight years ago. So never mind about that.

Coming back into the house through the wide oaken door, with light shooting in behind her, Alice noticed long, dull scratches on the hardwood floor. She dropped to her knees, felt the planks and smelled them too, her nose touching the cool wood. Was that vestigial moisture, a faint uric fishiness? That bit of sticky mud mashed against the baseboard, could it possibly be spoor?

In the dining room, the chairs were arranged with military precision--except for one skidded into a corner. And caught in the seam of another chair's back was a tuft of mouse-brown hair. Had the glass over Uncle Walter's baby portrait always been cracked? If the deer was real...

She dashed down the hall. "Aunt Kate?" she shouted, rapping on her aunt's bedroom door. "Are you in there?" She turned the knob and the door popped the way doors do when they haven't been opened since a change in weather. The pink candlewick spread was as neat and perfect as a bakery cake. No unexplained dent in the pillow. No lingering spectral traces.

Alice checked the bathroom, Uncle Walter's old room and Aunt Kate's study, where she dialed the desk phone.

Aunt Kate picked up on the first ring. "Who's this?"

"It's me, Alice Black." Alice gave her full name hoping to avoid being addressed as a historical personage. "Are you okay?"

"Oh, Alice," her aunt said. "You're up early. I'm right in the middle of a paragraph. May I call you back?"

"Yes, but real quick." Alice was relieved that her aunt sounded clear and sharp. "I'm just wondering--did you sleep okay last night?"

"If you mean did I sleep well, why yes, I believe I did."

"You didn't go for a drive last night? Or take a walk?"

"A walk?" Soft chuckle. "No, dear. I worked until ten, then went to bed."

"No strange dreams?"

"No, dear."

"Because something peculiar happened last night--"

"I'd love to hear all about it, but Alice dear, can it wait? May I call you back? I simply can't afford to lose this train of thought."

"Sorry," said Alice. "Bye, then."

She drank coffee and tried to read the newspaper but couldn't concentrate. Had a deer really come into the house? Or was she out of her mind?

Alice returned to the dining room and collected the possible deer hair, placing it in a Baggie. Using a butter knife, she shaved the mud or spoor off the baseboard and put it in another Baggie. Both Baggies went into a shoe box. If worst came to worst, she could send these specimens to a lab for identification.

Maybe she'd just lived too long in this house, which was known for harboring and incubating lunatics. But at age thirty-three, wasn't she out of the woods for adult-onset schizophrenia? Uncle Walter was twenty-five when he showed up to play tennis with his sisters with a lacrosse stick instead of a racquet. He insisted on using the stick even after his youngest sister burst into tears and begged him to stop. Several days later, he arrived at a family dinner wearing a kilt and lurching on crutches although nothing was wrong with his legs. At work, he began haranguing his students with confused, apocalyptic messages and paranoid accusations. All this happened very quickly. One day he was fine, ten days later a complete lunatic. He lost his job, of course. His young wife disappeared a few weeks later, and no one ever heard from her again.

Alice set the shoe box of Baggies on the kitchen counter, poured herself a fresh cup of coffee and reopened the newspaper. She still couldn't concentrate. She needed to talk to someone. She used the kitchen phone, a cheap portable model, and called Lime Cove. "Mom?" she said. "It's Alice."

"Alice, what a surprise," Mary Black said. "You're up early! Everything all right?"

"I'm fine," said Alice. "But this weird thing happened last night--nothing bad--it's just that I woke up and found a deer in the house."

"A live deer?"

"Yes." Alice described chasing it out, and how the deer had trouble on the slick floors.

"Any damage?"

"No, I got it out right away. But it shook me up."
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Interviews & Essays

Q. What was the seed--the first idea--for Jamesland?

A: There were two, actually. When I was in seminary in the early nineties, I had a dream about finding a deer in my house--a vivid, discomfitting dream, dim and full of racket and resonance. I was taking a graduate seminar on Freud and Jung (and therefore studying dream analysis), and I had the idea that this could be a kind of seminal dream for a character to investigate.

Around the same time, researching a paper on William James, I was paging through an old Time Life book on the occult and read that William James had appeared in more seances than anybody except Elvis. This made me laugh–and think.

Q: The title refers to William James, who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience–is Jamesland a version of The Varieties of Religious Experience for today?

A: Maybe it's more The Variety Show of Religious Experience for today.

I did want to write about the state of religion as I see it. I was particularly interested in writing about religious experience for the irreligious–like most of my friends. These are people who have grown up with little or no religious upbringing (like my character Alice), people who have rejected their religious upbringings (like Pete), people who are creating their own religions out of bits and pieces (like Helen) and even religious denominations (like Unitarian Universalism) that have rejected most religious trappings.

I wanted to play with such questions as: Can people who have rejected religion–its trappings, doctrines and vocabulary–actually have religious experience?Or do those kind of liminal, “mystical” experiences–dreams, visions, conversions, sudden beneficial shifts in outlook–become merely psychological or emotional experiences if stripped of religious language?

Helen, the minister in Jamesland, wonders how to minister to people who can't hear the word God without associating it with religious fundamentalism and all the ills organized religion has cast upon the world. And what good is a religion that disallows the usual consolations of a loving omnipotent God, a personal savior and an afterlife?

Q: In Jamesland, Alice Black is the great great granddaughter of William James. Is she based on William James's real-life famous sister Alice James?

A: Not in any big or specific way. The James family had the habit of giving the same names to people over and over again. They also married people with the same names as their family members. William James's sister, wife and daughter-in-law were all Alices. William and his sister Alice had an Aunt Kate just as Alice Black does. I use the names to suggest a legacy, a connection–and perhaps to indicate that much of who we are is predetermined, and inescapable.


Q: Alice is in her thirties and seriously depressed; she's underemployed and has gone through a series of bad boyfriends. She has three different relationships just in the course of the novel. Does she finally get it right?

A: Who knows? I do think that there's a progression. She finds a job that interests her. And she goes from a deeply obsessive affair with a married man to being with someone for whom she has little affinity. It's the lack of affinity, the lack of attraction that appeals to her. Everyone she's gone for in a big way has been a disaster, so she thinks the solution might be someone who doesn't awaken her grand emotions, someone who even bores her, someone she has to talk herself into. She thinks being deliberate about choosing a mate may be the solution to choosing unconsciously and in passion, but really, it's just as fallible, or more so. As for her third relationship: time will tell.

Q: When we first meet Pete Ross, he's a mess. He is rude
, uncontrolled fat, and obnoxious. Was it a challenge to make him appealing.

A: Oh, he was just afraid of meeting new people. Pete's a good egg. Usually, he says what's on everyone's mind anyway. Over time, his friends–and, I hope, his readers–come to rely on his honesty. And his cooking.

Q: You've been a restaurant critic for many years now. Is Pete based on any of the chefs you have known?

A: As a restaurant critic, I try not to “know” any chefs. I'm mostly anonymous although after fifteen years, I have, through repeated contact, become friendly with a couple. Pete's story is built from bits of many stories and many things I've eaten, plus a big helping of pure imagination.

Q: The setting in the Silverlake and Los Feliz districts of Los Angeles is quite vivid. Did you set out to write a Los Angeles novel? Do you think of yourself as an L.A. novelist?

A: I don't know what an L.A. novelist is, except someone who lives there and writes books. If anything, I occasionally think of myself as a California novelist, in that I'm interested in the history and culture and geography of California. But this novel happens to be set in Los Angeles. I wrote it when I was living in Atwater, which is across the river from Silverlake and Los Feliz. I shopped at the Mayfair, and often walked along the river and hiked in Griffith Park. That made research a snap. People often ask a novelist what part of the book is biographical. In the case of Jamesland, I'd say the geography is most biographical part.

Q: Where did Reverend Helen Harland come from? Her work at Morton Unitarian Universalist Church has the convincing whiff of reality about it.

A: I went to seminary for two years with the idea of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, but I stopped to write my first novel Round Rock, and never went back. However, I still hung around with enough ministers and in enough churches to imbibe quite a lot of their reality.

Q: Unitarians are generally considered among the most progressive of Protestant denominations. They were the first to ordain women in the 19th Century and the first to ordain gays and lesbians in the 20th, and for years have celebrated unions between gay and lesbian couples. Yet you portray Helen's congregation as uptight and homophobic. Why is this?

A: Unitarians, like most people, come in all stripes. Helen's is a small, ingrown church of mostly older people. They don't view themselves as religiously intractable or homophobic–it's just that seeing men holding hands in church makes them uncomfortable.

In seminary and afterwards, I watched in horrid fascination as several friends took jobs with such small, difficult, hidebound congregations--churches that any minister with any seasoning wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. But young, idealistic, prophetic, fresh-out-of-seminary new ministers eager to have their own churches can and do walk right into such deadly situations. A few hang in there and eventually, over years, transform such congregations into churches they can live with. Others are defeated, and some leave before their contracts are up. Some even give up ministry altogether after such a church has its way with them.

Q: Those who have read your first novel, Round Rock, will recognize Helen's boyfriend Lewis as one of the protagonists of that book. Do you see Jamesland as a sequel, or connected in any other way to Round Rock?

A: Jamesland is not a sequel to Round Rock, but both are concerned with how people who don't consider themselves religious–like almost all of my friends–still have these crises, these emergencies that are essentially spiritual or religious in nature and therefore require a spiritual or religious solution.

In Round Rock, such crises came in the form of alcoholism, and the solution was found in AA and personal recovery. But even AA spirituality is somewhat institutionalized, and certainly has its own vocabulary. After finishing Round Rock, I wanted to write about people who didn't qualify for any such program, who had to forge their own spiritual paths, invent their own religious vocabularies, find their own like-minded communities simply in order to survive.

As for Lewis, his role in Jamesland is really very tiny. I just wanted to keep him in the running. I have more plans for him. I'm not done with him yet.

Q: Both of your novels, then, are about redemption. Do you really believe that people can change and actually get better?


A: Incrementally, maybe. The term “redemption” makes me nervous. It sounds so much bigger than what actually happens, which is really quite a subtle process. So much a part of “getting better,” it seems, is accepting one's limitations and personal shortcomings and the enormous disappointment of not being all that transformable!
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2004

    At Home in Jamesland

    Michelle Huneven, relying on an exquisite use of language and a sharp sense of humor, has created a wonderfully bizarre love story that blooms from the City of Angels. Dysfunctional much of the time, but secure in their desire to improve themselves and find love in the right places (even if they hang around the wrong places a bit too long), Pete and Alice have every reason to disturb and rankle the other. But within the healing orbits of an unusually honest minister (Helen) and Alice's eccentric aunt, Kate, we can rejoice in their respective baby steps toward something resembling a 'normal' life. Thrown into the mix is--almost literally--the ghost of William James and an assortment of Los Angeles inhabitants such as a jive-talking, white cross-dresser and a beautiful, aging movie star. Huneven, who simply is a brilliant writer, begins this novel with a haunting image that carries through until the final pages. This is a spectacularly successful work of fiction that deserves to be read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2004

    L.A. Funk

    Those who know William James, modern day L.A. and can deal with modern romance with a twist will love this effort by an obviously budding author.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 23, 2010

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    Posted June 10, 2011

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    Posted April 14, 2012

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    Posted January 22, 2010

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