Round Rock

Overview

In a small town among the citrus groves in the Santa Bernita Valley, so the locals claim, nothing ever goes according to plan. "It's a great place to live, they say, if you like surprises: it's just like life, only different."

Certainly a number of Rito's inhabitants--fewer than a hundred in all--are surprised to be living here. Red Ray, for instance, a wildly alcoholic lawyer who bought a dilapidated Victorian mansion in an attempt to rehabilitate his marriage and regain the ...

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Round Rock

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Overview

In a small town among the citrus groves in the Santa Bernita Valley, so the locals claim, nothing ever goes according to plan. "It's a great place to live, they say, if you like surprises: it's just like life, only different."

Certainly a number of Rito's inhabitants--fewer than a hundred in all--are surprised to be living here. Red Ray, for instance, a wildly alcoholic lawyer who bought a dilapidated Victorian mansion in an attempt to rehabilitate his marriage and regain the affections of his wife and young son. After destroying those hopes with a spectacular final binge, Red established a drunk farm, Round Rock, on the ruins. There, one day at a time, he follows his new, unexpected calling.

Many months after her husband decamped (almost immediately) for Los Angeles, Libby Daw still lives alone in their trailer, and finds herself even more rooted to the valley she dreams of escaping.

And there's Lewis Fletcher, a sometime graduate student whose keen intelligence is sorely tested by his erratic behavior and current predicament. Without exactly knowing why, and entirely against his wishes--or by default and sheer good luck--he finds himself placed in Ray's care at Round Rock.

As these people seek out or maintain their various niches in the valley, the peculiar history of the place asserts itself. An heiress descended from the original settlers, Billie Fitzgerald still acts as though she owns it all; devoted to her father and son, she obscures her mercurial emotions from even her closest friends. The past also returns with David Ibañez, whose family had harvested the groves for generations--and whose talents and secrets (and thus, he discovers, his future) are inextricably bound to the complex, close-knit town he thought he had left behind.

With insight matched with artistry, Michelle Huneven traces the emerging destinies of these characters as each of them struggles for peace and equilibrium, even happiness and love, against hapless, all-too-human frailty and circumstance.

A vivid evocation of landscape and community, Round Rock derives great power from psychological subtlety, and from affection for and profound understanding of lives strained or broken but on the mend. Fresh, remarkably mature, and constantly surprising, this astonishing debut wins both your trust and your heart.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

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Among the inhabitants of the Santa Bernita Valley, it is commonly believed that nothing there ever goes according to plan." Some of the inhabitants swear that not even gravity is fully in control: Minor earthquakes ripple through the valley, and in certain places idling cars and irrigation ditches both display the astonishing ability to run uphill. Little wonder then, "that humans, being ninety percent water, should also fall prey to certain reversals and unpredictabilities."

Debut novelist Michelle Huneven sets her story in the sleepy town of Rito, a sort of quirky southern California Mitford, complete with its own resident spiritual advisor, a nominally domesticated dog of unusual size and questionable parentage, and an endearing cast of supporting characters. But coincidental comparisons to Jan Karon's homely hamlet end there — this is multiculti southern California after all, not the mountains of North Carolina. For better and for worse, a different philosophy — and a completely different set of temptations — apply.

In a valiant attempt to quit drinking and save his marriage, San Francisco lawyer Red Ray drops out of the rat race, puts a down payment on the old Morrot ranch — a dilapidated mansion presiding over 750 acres of neglected citrus groves — and hangs out his shingle in a storefront on Rito's main drag. But his sobriety cannot keep pace with work on the house, and Red Ray watches helplessly as his wife and young son drive away, leaving him to rattle about his half-restored Victorian whimsy alone.Hecelebrates his abandonment with a final, legendary "drinking tour of the Southland" with his old buddy Frank Jamieson, a spree that leaves Frank speechless, witless, and barely ambulatory, and propels Red Ray, after months of physical therapy, into AA. Sober for the first time in years, Red Ray decides to turn his half-renovated mansion into a "kind of halfway house for drunks and addicts," and after hiring staff and scouring every jail, hospital, and detox center in a 50-mile radius for "guests," the Round Rock Farm for Recovering Alcoholics opens for business.

Some years later, Lewis Fletcher arrives at Round Rock after his own final, fateful binge. A graduate student who has taken the last two quarters off to finish a string of incompletes (with overdue papers such as "Flaubert and Racism in Late Nineteenth-Century France," "Inscape and Individuation: Concepts of Self in Hopkins and Jung," it's no wonder he drinks), Lewis at first protests that his drinking isn't really all that out of control. He tries to impress Red Ray with his scholarly shtick, offering to write brochure copy in return for time on his computer. But to his puzzlement, Ray asks him only for a precis of his drinking history. Unsurprisingly, Lewis's essay is a doozie, alternately hilarious and harrowing, complete with a chronicle of psychedelic drug use that calls to mind feverish episodes of Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. At last twigging to the possibility that he may just have a problem, Lewis surrenders to Red Ray's sponsorship.

Lewis not only survives his court-ordered stay at Round Rock but decides to stay on in Rito, accepting a job as Red Ray's secretary. Making order from someone else's chaos is a pleasant change, and besides, he has struck up a rather steamy relationship with another Rito refugee, Libby Daw. Discarded when her architect husband began to chase after a Burbank actress, Libby now lives in an antique Manatee trailer on the plot of land where they had planned to build their — his — glass and chrome dreamhome. Neither Libby nor Lewis is prepared for the consequences of their affair; but as long as no real emotional demands are made, they maintain a mutually acceptable level of passion. Predictably, Lewis fails her when Libby needs him most, leaving her once again jilted and homeless. Into this slough of despond steps Red Ray — martyr, saint, and bodhisattva all in one — climbing down from his bare tree and at long last accepting the burden and joys of his own humanity.

Humanity is what Round Rock is all about. Huneven's characters may not always act in their own best interests, but they do behave with an honesty that makes even their most bizarre exploits believable. No one is stinted for personal history or carelessly drawn — even the least among Rito's residents seems to come to the page with a vivid story to tell. Huneven is a particularly keen observer of men: Libby's unsparing journal entries portray Lewis, and later, Red Ray, with jaw-dropping candor, and in revealing their ulterior motives, prevarications, insecurities, and sexual neediness she holds up a mirror in which more than a few of us will recognize our own reflections. At once a vivid evocation of landscape and community and a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of addiction and recovery, Round Rock is an utterly magical novel, an alchemical transformation of the base metal of human experience into an alloy of purest soul.

Valerie Sayers
[An] immensely likeable first novel. -- NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Among the inhabitants of the Santa Bernita Valley, it is commonly believed that nothing there ever goes according to plan."

So begins this delightful, bittersweet first novel about three of the central California Valley's hapless inhabitants and the lives they make by accident together. Ex-lawyer and recovering alcoholic Red Ray runs a halfway house for ex-boozers a few miles outside the little town of Rito, in the Valley's rural eastern end; abandoned by her hotshot architect husband, ex-housewife Libby Daw moves into a trailer and makes ends meet working for the local AA chapter; blacked-out ex-grad student Lewis Fletcher wakes up one morning far from home, in the Ventura County detox center and, with one too many alcohol-related offenses against his name, finds himself an unwilling prisoner of Round Rock, Red's drunk farm.

With a gentle hand reminiscent of Annie Proulx or Anne Tyler, Huneven brings these three lonely exes together in a bumbling triangle of affections that is at once unmistakably contemporary and familiar, attentive (if not always obedient) to the conventions of literary melodrama. As in most good comic novels, tear-jerkers included, the question "Who will end up with whom?" shades imperceptibly into the more interesting question "How?" Huneven has a gift for rendering grownup characters who keep growing up credibly (and quickly) before our eyes. There is nothing outwardly dazzling in her methodno breathtaking prose or startling wit, no perfectly tidy twisting to the plot, just a deep, intelligent sympathy for people whose lives matter to the reader. That is the quiet triumph of this novel, and for that, it stands out as one of the season's more promising debuts.

Kirkus Reviews
Huneven appears on the scene with a California-set and deftly managed melodrama about life, love—and alcoholism.

Red Ray was a thriving West Coast lawyer with a glamorous and ambitious wife—until she dumped him for being a drunk, and until he himself ended up nearly dead, thrown from a car wreck during a booze-driven tour of the southwest. "Red Ray," says Huneven, "rose from that curb a sober man." Where to go? What to do? Red returns to the half-decrepit Victorian mansion in the Santa Bernita Valley that he'd bought earlier as a gift and hobby for his renovation-minded wife and transforms it into—a "drunk farm." The mansion itself was once the home of a rich and cultivated woman who was also owner of the surrounding citrus groves—and whose Mexican workers lived in small sturdy bungalows clustered near the groves. The hardworking but laid-back Red makes a great success of it, filling the mansion with recovering drunks, becoming well known, receiving grants, and earning the lifelong fidelity and affection of the men he cures. Huneven's story begins when Red takes on a graduate student in his 20s named Lewis Fletcher, who's in denial not only about his alcoholism but about his own destructive and immature temperament. As the long tale unravels in its leisurely way (the as-yet unspoiled valley, famous for its "round rocks," is almost as much a character as the people in it), Lewis slowly gets cured—and slowly grows up—but there will be complications even so, partly from his love affair with the divorced Libby Pollack Daw and its unhappy aftermath, partly from his dealings with the treacherous local beauty, Billie Fitzgerald, partly from an old, deeply buriedmystery, and partly from what happens to the beloved Red Ray.

Long, slow, intelligent, and humane (not to mention filled with high expertise about alcoholism), Huneven's first offers an honest and compelling allure.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679776161
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/1/1998
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: First Vintage Contempories Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 799,207
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle Huneven was born in Altadena, California, and studied at Grinnell College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She makes her living as a freelance writer and restaurant critic, her work appearing in the Los Angeles Times, Harper's, and Buzz, among other publications. She has received a GE Younger Writers Award in Fiction and a James Beard Award. She lives in Los Angeles.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

The following Sunday, the lake was socked in with fog. Libby set up two poles, wrote in her journal, caught one fish.

Someone called her name and Lewis pulled out of the fog like creation itself. Her first reaction was, How dare he? Her second, pleased surprise. Or maybe the two thoughts were simultaneous: How dare he cause her pleased surprise?

"This is the second week I've come looking for you." Lewis squatted by her chair. "This is a cool thing to do. You're right -- it is like going to church, only better." He touched the cane pole. "Hey, want to go to Miserable Yolanda's for breakfast?"

"Can you go there?" she said.

"Why not?"

"Isn't it a bar?"

"What, you think I'm going to drink?"

"No, no..." She stammered stupidly. Alcoholism etiquette, she sensed, was a minefield for the uninitiated.

He punched her arm lightly. "I'll be safe with you. You won't let me partake, right?"

His dark eyes danced with what? Derision?

"Sorry," she said to him. "It's none of my business."

When they got back to town, he was too hot and wanted to change out of his sweater. "Care to see my room?"

She wasn't crazy about ducking into the Mills Hotel with a man in clear view of Main Street yet she'd always wondered about the fine white clapboard building.

The lobby, though dingy, was clean and had an enormous hearth built of large, white, round river rocks. Lewis' room, at the top of creaky wooden stairs, barely had space for a bed and a bureau. Thumbtacked to the wall was a t-shirt silkscreened with a caricature of Wallace Stevens. A postcard of a blue jar was tacked upside-down above the t-shirt's neck. "It's a joke," Lewis said. "Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about a blue jar. Here, I'll read it to you."

Libby sat down on the bed since there was no place else to sit, unless she wanted to roost on a big clump of laundry in the room's only chair. She didn't understand the poem. The room was hot, the radiator hissed. Lewis moved on to another poem, with even more dizzying words. "The Idea of Order at Key West." At least she didn't have to think of anything to say. Then, he put the book down on the foot of the bed -- she assumed he was going to rummage in the laundry chair for a shirt -- but without a word, he placed his hands on her shoulders. He came in close; it was a stare-down, an ophthalmic assault. Her mind sped. He couldn't kiss her when she was all fishy like this. But he did. He was kissing her neck and jaw, licking his way back to her lips. In no time he was undressing her, a series of insistent tugs. She didn't mind. In fact she liked this focussed, no-nonsense approach. This was what she thought would happen, although maybe not so quickly, and she couldn't have predicted that he'd have such authority. She was naked and he was still in that old wool sweater and jeans. He looked her straight in the eye. Scary, but fun. Really fun.

Sprawled across the bed, he pushed his pants down, rolled away from her to put on a condom and, re-establishing eye-contact, promptly guided himself inside her. His eyes flickered. The musty sweater was itchy, abrasive, like his beard. She didn't even like beards, thought them slovenly. The whole grungy room was slovenly. She came fast and hard. Like I'm the man, she thought. Premature. He smiled and, without pulling out of her, took off his sweater. His chest was hairless, the ribs pronounced. His olive skin was granular, like muscled sand.

"Do you want to talk about this?" he asked, still inside her.

"Not now!"

"We're doin' it," he said. "Shouldn't we talk about it?"

"God, Lewis." She bundled his butt in her hands and, to shut him up, pushed him into her.

"No?" Laughing a little. More in control than she ever dreamed he'd be. "You sure you don't want to talk about this?"

Afterwards, he held her forearm, kissed her ear. He got up first, and brought her back a mug of lukewarm tap water. When she returned from the bathroom, his pants were on. "Breakfast?" he said.

EXCERPT 2

By eleven-twenty, when Lewis knocked on her door, Libby had given up on him and dressed for bed in nightgown and kimono. She let him in and saw at first glance that his earlier, pressing enthusiasm had dwindled. He slunk into her kitchen, bad news incarnate.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Sorry it took me so long," he said. "Red and I had to have a little chat. You mind if I smoke?"

"Go ahead," she said, suddenly queasy. "What did you chat about?"

"You don't want to know."

"About me?"

"In the abstract."

"What'd you say?"

"I didn't tell him anything."

What was to tell? "What'd he say, then?"

"He told me to watch my step in all this." Lewis flung an arm to indicate her kitchen, her house, her.

"That makes two of us."

"Maybe I should go," he said. "No sense in dragging both of us down. I'll finish this smoke and leave you the hell alone. Unless you want to make some coffee. I could stand a cup of coffee."

"At this hour? Won't it keep you up?"

"I only wish."

Libby pulled the can of Yuban from the fridge and filled the coffee maker with water.

"This is it, this is who I am," Lewis said. "Up and down, up and down, ever since I got sober." He sat cross-legged on a kitchen chair.

"This is me, the dull lump."

Libby laughed softly. "Dull lump is the last term I'd apply to you."

"I just think too much. My mind is an alternate digestive tract. I chew myself up. I make myself sick. I'm a living, breathing wreck. Hey, will you walk on my back?"

Holding onto the back of the chair, Libby took cautious wobbly steps along his spine. He grabbed her ankle, reached for her hand, and pulled her down among the chair legs. After all that gloom, it was good to be thrashing around on the linoleum and kissing. When he took the condom from his pocket -- she loved that he took care of such things -- he said, "We might as well hit the bed. If you don't mind. I mean, nothing against your cold, hard, gritty floor..."

He insisted on constant eye contact, an intensity she found compelling and connective. Did he know what he was doing?

They smoked afterwards, sharing a cigarette. Libby made herself get up to pee, otherwise it was cystitis for sure. When she returned from the bathroom, he was dressed, drinking coffee. Her heart sank. She'd been expecting him to stay. "You don't have to leave."

"You want to sleep," he said. "I want to pull up trees. Or juggle chain saws. I'd just keep you awake." He sat on the bed to pull on his socks. She curled around him and it was true, his body hummed. "Maybe I'll have one more cup of coffee." He fetched it himself and drank, sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking her back.

In the morning, Libby wrote: Running late, but will not abandon this journal just because I'm seeing someone. Don't let me stop flossing either.

First man in my bed since Stockton. How do I feel? My emotions slide right off that question. I'm still in a sexual blur. Already feel a bladder infection coming on. Guzzling cranberry juice.

Lewis was trouble, she decided, but mostly to himself. She should leave him alone. But her whole body -- muscles, skin, eyes, even her hair and teeth wanted more of him first.

From the Hardcover edition.

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