June 13, 2005
JEAN JACKMAN: For The News Tribune
If Oprah were still running her book club, "Homesick Creek" by Tacoma author DIane Hammond would no doubt be a winning selection.
Therein lies the novel's strengths and weaknesses.
It's got all the requisite elements beloved of Oprah: intelligent writing, sympathetic characters struggling with real-life problems and a redemptive ending. But it also sometimes slides into sentimentality, and a few characters veer dangerously close to being outright cliches.
In her second novel, Hammond returns to the small town of Hubbard, Ore., that she introduced in "going to Bend." She limns a dead-on portrait of the down-at-heels community and its scrappy denizens who cobble together a living by waitressing, cleaning motel rooms and the life. It's a world of cafes, laundromats, trailer parks and chronic disappointment, of plainspoken, hardworking people who've learned not to expect too much out of life.
At the center of the novel are two middle-age couples. Hack is a charismatic car salesman with a mysterious past, married to Bunny, a waitress suspicious of his flirtation with his co-worker, Rae Macy, a recent big-city transplant. Bob is a genial failure, an alcoholic who adores his wife, the long-suffering Anita (Bunny's best friend), and has a dark secret on which the story pivots.
Hammond skillfully interweaves their stories with chapters that present alternating points of view. She is a strong, straightforward writer who knows how to move a story along and how to nail a character with carefully chosen details:
"A lot of people didn't think you noticed when you lost your looks, but that wasn't true. Anita saw ever single thing: the doughy skin, the weight; the stringy hair, the messy center part, the gray. She knew exactly what she looked like. She looked like everyone else who was circling the drain."
Oddly, it is the male characters of Hack and Bob who are more richly explored and fully realized than the women.
For example, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between lifelong friends Bunny and Anita. They both come across as blobby middle-age women, very similar to one another and not terribly compelling. Bunny's mother, Shirl, is a total cliche, a dumpy harridan fond of beer, cigarettes and opining loudly in restaurants. Doreen, Anita's shiftless, foulmouthed daughter, also seems more of a type than an individual.
Hack's co-worker, Rae Macy, with her expensive clothes, her MBA from Stanford and her upper-middle-class sensibility, seems curiously out of place in this relentlessly blue-collar tale. She functions as more of a device than a character, a vehicle for occasional outsider commentary on the more appalling aspects of small-town life, as in this description of a young couple:
"Rae guessed the boy had probably just gotten off the graveyard shift. She knew about these thing snow: swing, graveyard, day. The girl whose hand the boy held was six or seven months pregnant and still wearing a regular T-shirt, which strained across her belly. Through the taut cloth Rae could see she was wearing regular jeans, too, unzipped all the way and held together by a piece of basted-on elastic . . . . Both had the pasty, unhealthy pallor of the coast in winter, forsaken as it was by the sun between October and May. In Rae's opinion, the sheer numbers of sex crimes, petty burglaries, assaults, batteries and alcohol-related incidents supported the reality of seasonal affective disorder."
But Rae is never quite integrated into the story, as if she's wandered in from another novel. It's hard to believe that a person like her would end up in the hermetic world of Hubbard, despite the author's attempt to provide a plausible explanation.
Still, Homesick Creek is a well-paced, engaging novel full of smart observations about the persistence of love in the face of literal as well as emotional impoverishment.