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, and quarrels. 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.