Friday, April 24, 2015

Reading the Latest Novel by Michelle Huneven While Walking Around Pasadena.

When I map out conferences theoretically, it doesn't seem like too much, but once I got to my side conference that was held in conjunction with ABA Children's Institute in Pasadena, it just brought home the truth that I still haven't put into practice the great ideas from Winter Institute in Asheville.

Every time I come out to Pasadena, it's morphed a bit. On my first visit, many years ago, there was a traditional seventies-style indoor mall, but the rest of the retail along the street had seemed passed its heyday. The next time, it seemed that there was sort of an outdoor lifetstyle center that was the big thing, but coming back, that shopping center now seems to have some functional issues, and Old Town Pasadena, the part of town that wasn't part of a mega-development but grew organically, seems to be more bustling than ever. On the downside, like many other popular shopping areas, it was hard to find a retailer selling "stuff" that wasn't food and drink, with of course the big exception being the magnificent Vroman's.

In 2003, when Book Expo was in Los Angeles, I happened to take along with me a novel called Jamesland, by Michelle Huneven. It has turned out to be one of my favorite novels, one of only a few that I've read more than once. I don't know if the chicken or the egg came first here, but while I was getting read for a conference in Pasadena, I decided to take along Michelle Huneven's latest book, Off Course, which I knew had at least part of the book set in Pasadena, and coincidentally was just out in paperback last week.

For some reason, there is nothing like a place-driven book when you're on vacation in that place. Some folks actually make the request and sometimes it just comes up when you're discussing books. One thing I've noticed is that when you get it right, that's one of the most frequent incidences where the customer comes back after the trip to tell you about it. So really if I were a better bookseller, I'd have a crib sheet to be prepared for requests.

That said, it was not exactly the experience of reading Jamesville and walking around the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. For one thing, most of the action took place in the smaller towns of Sparkville and Sawyer, closer to the Sierras; Pasadena was a bit player. And yet, and yet, it was true that I was completely obsessed with reading Off Course while walking around the city that first day, and I only attribute that in part to Hunevent's writing.

Set in the 1980s, Cressida Hartley was ABD (all but dissertation) on her advanced economics degree, where she was documenting what artists did that affecting the value of their work --#1 was dying. To find a place where she could concentrate, she moved up to her parents cabin and slowly fell into the rhythm of the small town life, taking up with Jakey, the local lodge owner and getting some odd jobs. She realizes the lodge owner is quite the philanderer and pulls back, but it's the next fellow she fall in with that drives the narrative, for he is not just a quiet, older carpenter, but he's also married. And the more they continue, the more complicated the relationship gets, the more they are unable to break the stranglehold the relationship has on them. And no, that dissertation is not getting written.

I still haven't read Round Rock, but I think it's clear to say that Huneven's last three novels have dealt with addiction in one form or another. And while a lot of folks in Off Course drink way too much (and a few have peripheral drug issues), this is definitely her relationship addiction novel. And like Blame it's a bit painful to read--"No, no, no!" I found myself shouting more than once. That's just the way a book like this is going to go.

Huneven (photo credit Karen Tapia) captures the innate sexism of the situation that works out on several levels. Cress doesn't really see that even though both she and Quinn are complicit in this relationship, and Quinn has less moral ground, everyone around her slowly decides that it is in fact her "fault", with not just Quinn remaining blameless but also Jakey, even though the town has got to know that he has taken multiple married women as lovers - we sure know it. And perhaps that is partly a function of the times, but really, has society changed that much in thirty years on this front? I'm not sure.

Off Course sends us deep into the relationship abyss and gives us a lot of hints that this eventually we will climb out of that dark hole. But can the story resolve it self to our satisfaction? How can it? There are lots of possible resolutions out there, but the one we know that won't happen is the one that Cress thinks she wants, but even she, deep down inside, seems to know she doesn't want it either, and the same with Cress.

Yikes. The thing is, even though this may not have been the book I wanted to read by Huneven, her writing is as sharp as ever. I was ready to read Cress's dissertation of economic models for artists if Huneven ghost-wrote it. Perhaps my only quibble, really, was with a therapist perhaps over-explaining to us a few details that I thought it might have been more fun to leave for us to put together.

In a nice turn of events, Off Course has just come out in paperback from Picador. And in another nice turn, here is a sign I spotted while walking around Pasadena. I believe the full name is Hotel Livingston.

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