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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.