Authors: Michelle Huneven
“Classy, absorbing … thoroughly old-fashioned in its likable characters and its fine writing.”
—The New Yorker
“Like a fat, comfortable chair, [a book] you can forget yourself in.… [Huneven] lays bare the human heart’s deepest fears and yearnings.”
“Characters that fit like a pair of jeans and an old T-shirt—this is a book you can live in. It is wise, witty, and charming—and, ultimately, deeply moving. Brilliant.”
—T. Coraghessan Boyle
“Warm and absorbing.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“I’ve not read so knowing and pleasant a book in years … superb!”
“A wonderfully rewarding good read.”
“Huneven is an audacious novelist.… [She] approaches the inhabitants of Round Rock with the same curiosity through which Brian Moore or Graham Greene or Muriel Spark might explore characters in their novels.”
—Los Angeles Times
Michelle Huneven is the author of
She was born in Altadena, California, studied at Grinnell College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and makes her living as a freelance writer and restaurant critic. She has received a GE Younger Writers Award in Fiction and a James Beard Award. She now lives (again) in Altadena.
Copyright © 1997 by Michelle Huneven
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1997.
A portion of this work first appeared in
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Peer International Corporation for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Hello Stranger” by A. P. Carter, copyright © 1938 by Peer International Corporation, copyright renewed. International copyright secured. Reprinted by permission.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Huneven, Michelle, [date]
Round Rock: a novel/Michelle Huneven. —1st ed.
Author photograph © James Fee
Random House Web address:
For their expertise and support, the author would like to thank James Beetem, Bernard Cooper, Gary Fisketjon, Amy Gerstler, Maxine Groffsky, Arthur Huneven, Tom Knechtel, Bia Lowe, Jeffrey Luther, Arty Nelson, Holly Pilling, Nicole Reilley, Lily Tuck, Ellen Way, and the MacDowell Colony.
the inhabitants of the Santa Bernita Valley, it is commonly believed that nothing there ever goes according to plan.
The valley was settled by two families back in the late 1850s. Henri Morrot arrived from southern France with his wife and infant son to plant vineyards. Discouraged by the adobe soil, he spent thirty years growing lima beans and sweet potatoes before filling the valley floor with citrus.
Tom and William Fitzgerald, two adventurous, often drunken brothers from Chicago, received a land grant for the northern foothills and grazed sheep in a haphazard fashion while Morrot grew rich during the citrus boom in the nineties. Now, a century later, eighty percent of the groves are in the Fitzgerald name, and the only two Morrots left in the valley live in the government-subsidized Buena Vista Rest Home in Buchanan, a small city in the valley’s western mouth.
In the narrower, less-developed eastern end, particularly in and around the town of Rito, fate is said to be especially capricious.
In 1947, the Army Corps of Engineers paved the road and erected a pretty little bridge over the river just outside of town. That very winter, the Rito flooded, washed out the bridge, and changed course, using half a mile of new roadway as its streambed.
In 1958, Victor Ibañez purchased a small corner storefront in downtown Rito and opened an auto parts store and machine shop. When his wife, Aida, saw the men standing around waiting for their pistons to be knurled and drums to be turned, she decided to market homemade tamales from an electric Dutch oven. Soon, the men were asking for pop, beer, cigarettes. By 1963, squeezed out by a NAPA franchise, Victor’s business became a grocery store with a full meat case and deli.
When Ralph Mills bought the old Frank Morrot residence catty-corner to the Ibañez Grocería, he planned to turn it into a nice, low-budget
motel for the fishermen who came to Lake Rito, six miles away. Guests who checked in never checked out, and Ralph found himself the reluctant landlord to an assortment of cranky old pensioners. Death alone generated vacancies.
William Fitzgerald IV had acquired over 400 acres of Morrot groves by the 1960s. He sent his son, John, to study agronomy at Cal Poly, San Jose. His daughter, Billie, went to Stanford, where, he hoped, she’d use her commendable intellect to attract a suitable husband. John now practices entertainment law in West Hollywood. Billie came home from Stanford in her junior year five months pregnant. No husband. She presently manages some 500 acres of avocados, oranges, grapefruit, lemons, tangelos, mandarins, and pomelos.
Yolanda Marina Torres, the novice Sister Katy at the Purísima Sacred Heart Academy near Lompoc, was accompanying a group of other teacher-nuns to a seminar on audiovisual aids in Los Angeles. They stopped at a fruit stand on the Santa Bernita Highway and a man named Luis Salazar asked Yolanda if he could see her hair. She never made it to the seminar. She’s now the mom in their mom-and-pop bar and grill, Happy Yolanda’s, in downtown Rito.
Libby and Stockton Daw, a young couple from New Orleans, bought a ten-acre parcel four miles from town for an extravagant sum of money. They bulldozed a site for an enormous, postmodern home that Stockton, an award-winning architect, was designing. Within a year, Stockton was living with a TV actress in Burbank and Libby was alone on the property, inhabiting an older-model Manatee house trailer and working two jobs to make ends meet.
The most popular explanation for the valley’s haywire history and unpredictable future is geological. The valley is slung between two ridges in the Santa Bernita Mountains, which, contrary to almost every other American range, run east and west. The Santa Bernitas are young mountains, surging in place, their stratigraphy diagonal, their profiles jagged and fanciful, as if cut with a jigsaw in the hands of a child. Erosion and vegetation haven’t worn them down or softened the evidence of continual upheaval. Gravity itself has never fully asserted its steadying centripetal power. Pivoting outward from the San Andreas Fault, the region still twitches with frequent, tiny earthquakes. And there’s a grade by Harry Zeno’s junkyard where cars, if left in neutral at a complete standstill, will roll uphill at speeds up to twenty MPH. Nearby irrigation ditches also run uphill. So it stands
to reason that humans, being ninety percent water, should also fall prey to certain reversals and unpredictabilities.
Red Ray attributed the relative success of his drunk farm to the valley’s peculiar seismology. Drunks, Red had long since learned, were the world’s most assiduous planners. They planned their next drinks, to drink only socially, to stop drinking entirely. They planned to make their first million, to improve their marriages, to live new, perfect lives. Out in the world at large, such plans had predictable outcomes. But here, in the Santa Bernita Valley, where nobody could predict anything with accuracy, even drunks had a fighting chance to surprise themselves.
Although long-term valley inhabitants have learned to tailor their expectations, everybody still makes plans, the more elaborate, the better, if only to take greater delight in the permutations to come. It’s a great place to live, they say, if you like surprises: it’s just like life, only different.
was waiting to be discharged from the Ventura County Social Model Detoxification Facility. Nobody could explain this name to him. “Social” as opposed to what? Asocial? Antisocial? Unsocial? Yesterday, they—or at least this guy Bobby—told him he’d be able to walk right out come nine o’clock this morning. Walk right out to freedom. Sky. Sidewalk underfoot. Well-aimed sun. Coffee shops. Then, Bobby said, some stuff about him came in over the computer, and now it was known he’d had too many alcohol-related offenses to be released on his own recognizance.
Lewis had trouble accepting this development. Six years had passed since he’d had that drunk-and-disorderly, which wasn’t at all what it sounded like, and three years since the DUI, or almost three, and that was a fluke too. The day he got the DUI, he’d been at the beach with friends and hadn’t had a thing to drink until a minute before they left. They’d been rolling up blankets, gathering trash, when a girl handed him a screwdriver. He drank it down like orange juice, only she must have put a lot of vodka in it that he didn’t taste, because when he was tested, he had a really high blood-alcohol count. Point two.
The drunk-and-disorderly was even more ridiculous. He and one of his mother’s boyfriends had been drinking a little beer and got into an argument in the driveway. They were yelling away, with Lewis’s mother coming out every few minutes to beg them to stop. He didn’t have any idea what was so important that they had to stand there and yell for the whole neighborhood to hear, but he did recall that there was some pleasure in it, a big, freeing fuck-everybody feeling, and neither one of them was willing to give it up. His mom called the cops, and they took both of them to the station. They were joking around in the patrol car on the way down, and probably wouldn’t even have been booked if Elkhart—that was the
boyfriend’s stupid name—hadn’t called the cops a couple of pindicks to their faces.
Of all the times Lewis had really tied one on, been truly angry at someone or on the verge of doing something profoundly disorderly, it was absurd that these two incidents were the ones that came over the computer to complicate his discharge from detox. Bobby said he had a few choices: his wife or a relative could come and sign him out, or he had to check himself into some kind of treatment program for alcoholism.
Lewis didn’t have a wife, so he called his mother, who lived sixty miles away, in Sunland. She was on her way to work, she told him, and couldn’t come. She couldn’t come after work, either, or tomorrow, which was Saturday. She couldn’t come get him at all, in fact. “This time, you have to count on somebody else, because I’m letting you down and making a point of it,” she said. “This is a big step for me and I want you to respect it.” Okay then, Lewis said, goodbye, and stood there trying to think why she was so mad at him. He had this guilty, sick-at-heart feeling and kept going through his memories until he found one that matched. Sure enough, he remembered the hundred dollars he borrowed from her three months ago for what was supposed to be three days. Funny thing was, he’d had the money the whole time. He could’ve paid her back. He never got around to finding an envelope, addressing it, buying a stamp.