"Breaking and Entering" by Eileen Pollack. Four Ways Books. 386 pages. $19.
In this era of overplayed culture wars, it is no wonder novelists are drawn to related themes that offer an opportunity to explore partisan divisions, quests for commonalities, unlikely alliances, morality lessons and confirmation of belief systems. With an all-families-are-equally-troubled ethos, Eileen Pollack enters into the fray of these plotlines with "Breaking and Entering."
Her fish-out-of-water tale places Northern California therapist/couple Louise and Richard in their new red state home of Potawatomie Mich. Fleeing Richard's memories of an unsuccessfully thwarted patient suicide and his resulting career-killing pyromaniac episode, they settle in this backwater town where Richard has landed a job in the state prison. Living in a community where the primary employers are the prison and the onion ring factory, the dominant faith is fearfully fundamentalist, the favorite pastime requires ammunition and the overriding politics lean far right, renders this liberal couple initially alienated.
Louise, born nominally Christian in a working class community, still registers as "other" due to her commune-living absentee parents and her flight to the West Coast and ultimate marriage to a slightly observant Jew from the Northeast. Further, her blonde hair and sun-kissed good looks, characteristics oddly lavished over in the story, raise suspicions from the seemingly washed-out working class residents.
Her salvation comes in a parade of "Northern Exposure" quirky types including a vocally impaired neighbor whose militantism is tainted by her softness for children, a bird-loving Wiccan amnesiac postal worker, a gay couple working with AIDS refugees and members of the Unitarian church.
Richard contrastingly finds a way to fit in his prison workspace, which is filled with offensively stereotypical characters and in with his neighbors by conforming to their manly hate-spewing ways. Louise. meanwhile, alienated from husband and all but a few townspeople, trudges around town, alternately ignoring and smothering her 6-year-old daughter, Molly, filling her days as a part-time counselor at the local high school, finding kinship among those involved in the Unitarian church's AIDS coalition and ultimately fueling passion in the arms of the Church's married clerical leader, Ames.
Emotionally estranged from her husband and indifferent to her childhood best friend's cancer, Louise easily falls into the illicit affair. Ames's motives are less clear and his claims of frustration with a not fully articulated marriage ring hollow.
As Louise's involvement with Ames intensifies to a fatal attraction, Richard's makeover into gun-toting militia man becomes complete, and Molly is left to find her moral compass in the home of the amnesiac bird lady, Em. From here the story escalates and inflames -- fiery symbolism repeated mercilessly as it swells into a literal house fire -- as passions smolder, guns erupt in deadly sparks and fireworks light up the sky.
The story is set in the midst of a Timothy McVeigh-era of suspicion, offering a practically nostalgic view of this pre-9/11 time. But the nicely timed plot setting is not enough to raise this story from the predictable.
Pollack is a competent writer and her story has potential. Unfortunately, she seems unable to bring it to its full realization. Instead, her novel alternately can be read as a story of an overwrought pathetic lovelorn woman, a snarky coastal takedown of the beliefs of Middle America or a morality tale about the meaning of home, safety, tolerance and family (as delivered in a message that is crowded into the final pages).
All of this only muddies the waters in a book that conforms to prejudices, exacerbates fears and offers too-little-too-late Kumbaya platitudes. Or to continue with the fire symbolism, "Breaking and Entering's" initial starter flame fizzles into forgettable embers.
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.