Navigation Menu+

Jamesland by Michelle Huneven

Posted on Dec 8, 2008 by

A divine comedy?
This is one of those books I came across by chance in the library.  I read the back cover.  Saw that the central character, Alice, was a descendant of William James.  Saw that the San Francisco Chronicle called the book “joyous” and “good for what ails you.”  The Atlantic Monthly said, “This divine comedy offers a glimpse of transcendence that’s refreshingly believable.”  And thought, hey, why not?  This was a few years ago.  I liked the book quite a bit.  Then last month I read it again and was delighted to find that it still holds up.  The reviewers got it right.

This is such a good novel.  Such wonderfully quirky and likeable characters.  Alice and Pete and Helen.  If I could, I’d invite them all over for dinner, together.  I’d ask Pete if maybe he’d consider cooking.

Pete’s an excellent cook—a professional chef.  (Think dishes like lamb tagine with dried figs.  Or plum tart with lemon sorbet.)  But he’s also a chef very much down on his luck.  He’s lost his restaurant, his wife, and visitation rights with his young son.  He’s had some anger issues.  A suicide attempt.  Now he’s forty-six years old and living with his widowed mother, a nun, who has been given a leave of absence from her convent in order to help him get back on his feet.

Here is the passage in which Ms. Huneven deftly introduces us to Pete at the beginning of Chapter three.

Pete Ross overslept.  When he came into the living room, his mother was already on her knees at the neatly made sofa bed.  Knuckles pressed to her forehead, she was conversing with her second husband, Jesus Christ, from whom she was temporarily and amicably separated.

Not wanting to disturb his mother, Pete decides not to make coffee before setting out on one of his long walks through Los Feliz, along the river, asking the question he asks over and over throughout the novel: How do people live in this world?

Pete has issues.  But he’s working on them.  This is Pete trying to sit still.

After his mother left for work, Pete set the timer on the stove for ten minutes to meditate.  A blocky sofa cushion took some weight off his legs, but within thirty seconds his knees were burning, his heart was pounding like a tribal tom-tom and spontaneous combustion seemed imminent.  What did he expect?  He’d only recently begun his exercise routines, and his blood pressure was still sky high, his heart flabby as cheese.  Sitting in silence, he was indeed face-to-face with what is—or, rather, with what he is: a system near its breaking point.  His meditation teacher Helen Harland, had told him to breathe through such anxiety, but he wasn’t confident this anxiety was passable.  More likely, his body had been waiting for precisely this attention, as if all it wanted was a spectator for its final, lavish explosion.  A full half hour of meditation and he’d doubtless be nothing but an oily sheen on the walls, a few flakes of greasy ash.

Meditation with a light and realistic and terribly human touch.  Now that I like.

Thankfully, Pete’s meditation teacher, Helen Harland, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is not one to take herself too seriously either.  We’re introduced to her two chapters later as she sits at her church on a folding chair next to the podium, watching and listening to a small Ecuadorian band.  Here’s a window into Helen’s mind as she sits on her folding chair:

She hadn’t wanted Ecuadorian or any other musicians, but how could one balk when a congregant in good standing actually volunteered to do something?  She could’ve said no, that she did not care for Ecuadorian bands, having heard them all over France last summer, whistling and chuffing to the wee hours in the plaza of every small town until even the briefest scrap of their music only evoked nights of lost sleep.  She could also have said that she’d made a solemn promise upon becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister that she would avoid at all costs any service that could double as a skit on Saturday Night Live.  If Helen had learned anything in her sixteen months at Morton, however, it was to pick her battles.

Over and over in this novel, Ms. Huneven plays off the title by William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience.  Religion as a kind of variety show—but presented with a light and compassionate touch.

And the third character in this variety show?  Alice.  The descendant of William James with whom we first enter the novel.  Alice wakes, in the prologue, to the sound of skidding furniture.  She gets out of bed, goes into the dining room and sees, on the other side of the table, “a furry shoulder, a long neck and large, pricked ears.”  A deer.  In the dining room.  Real?  Not real?  Spiritual visitor?

Here’s Alice on the telephone the next morning trying to tell her mother about the visitor:

“Any damage?” [her mother asks.]

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

“I would think so,” Mary said.  “Though I’m not really surprised, not with the way you leave         doors wide open for all and sundry to wander in.”

 “The doors weren’t open, Mom.”  Last year, when her mother came to visit, Alice had left the front door ajar for her; the doorbell was broken, and a knock wouldn’t carry to the back of the house where Alice was mopping in anticipation of her arrival.  This misguided act of hospitality had already come up several times as proof of general irresponsibility.  “It was the middle of the night.  The house was locked.”

“Deer don’t climb in windows, Alice,” Mary said.  “Well, maybe you’ll be more careful after this.  I do worry about you in that big old house . . .  Oh look, your father just came in!  Hi, darling, want to talk to your long-lost daughter?  Alice, here’s Dad.”

A pause, with almost inaudible whispering, as the phone passed hands.  “Allie-Oop!  Is this your nickel or mine?”

In less than a minute, he’d said good-bye.

It’s humor that makes this book so delightful.  I’d say that Ms. Huneven has a wonderful sense of humor, but maybe it would be fairer to say that she has a sense of humor close enough to mine that I can appreciate it.  I do appreciate it.  This is a novel about spiritual quest—three characters on different and intertwining spiritual quests—but all of this done in such a large way and with such a light hand.  And with this delightful sense of laughter bubbling up underneath.

If, like me, you like to have a good novel on reserve, like money in the bank, consider getting this one—–and then
pull it out one day like a treat—-like healing food——