The Oregonian, Portland, OR

July 03, 2005

Redemption travels a winding road in 'Homesick Creek'

Redemption comes in myriad disguises, and Diane Hammond's second novel, "Homesick Creek," movingly reveals how the secrets we carry act as massive barriers along the road to kindness and forgiveness.

Set in 1989 in the same milieu in the fictional town of Hubbard as her first book, "Going to Bend," the story opens with an allusion to the weather: "Mornings come hard and mean on the Oregon coast in winter"—which pretty much sums up the day to day lives of Hammond's four central protagonists as well.

The novel revolves around two married couples—Bunny and Hack and Anita and Bob—longtime friends who have gradually let the struggles of survival wear them down. Their lives have become constrained by the present and paralyzed by the future, making "Homesick Creek" initially read like little more than an exercise in futility.

But as Hammond nimbly explores her character's inner strengths—and lack thereof—we gradually begin to identify with the mix of gritty determination and tired resignation these people so fully embody.

Bunny feels lucky she's attached to Hack, who arrived in her life when she was a single mother, raising a daughter. "You couldn't keep a man like Hack. The best you could hope for, if you were lucky and you played your cards right, was to get the use of him for a while."

Hack does well selling cars the local dealership. He has a few low-key indiscretions over the years, but is closer to Bunny's daughter than she is. He makes a good living and does stay, charming his way through life in a superficial manner, although the romantic flame in their marriage burn s out along the way.

Bunny believes, mistakenly as it turns out, that Hack is having an affair with Rae, a sophisticated young woman who works with him at the dealership. Her suspicions fuel her fears of being left behind by Hack, and much of her part in the novel concerns this dynamic in their marriage.

She is unaware of Hack's tragic childhood traumas—he keeps this secret to himself, and it limits his ability to be whole with Bunny.

Anita and Bob, on the other hand, are much worse off; Bob is a binge drinker who barely holds onto his job at the same car dealership, and Anita, overweight and scarcely employed herself, is no longer the won babe. But it's Bob, the true core of the story, who provides the most drama and orchestrates the most heartbreak: unbeknownst to Anita, Bob and his childhood friend, Warren, have carried on an affair since their youth. Bob doesn't consider himself homosexual, and his love for Anita has remained constant. But when Warren shows him "a couple of red spots no bigger than doll's eyes" and says he has "cancer," Bob can barely face the truth, and even when he does, he can't bring himself to tell Anita.

So as both women soldier on, clinging to what stability they have—joy is not an option here—it's the men who prove to be deeply troubled and emotionally crippled. Bob's silence regarding Warren's—and thus his—problems naturally evolves to a lamentable conclusion.

What makes "Homesick Creek" so much more than merely a soaper with extra suds is Hammond's gift for writing beautifully nuanced sentences with concepts she gracefully turns into key themes Her description of the sentiment around Anita and Bob's first sexual encounter, in the back of Bob's car—"At eighteen they still held to the touching delusion that failure happens in catastrophic ways instead of by inches, from the inside out"—shines with a lovely humanity yet downbeat truth.

If there's a flaw in "Homesick Creek," it's the character of Rae. Her persona never feels fully fleshed out, but rather little more than a plot device the author uses to illustrate conflict in Bunny and Hack's marriage.

And redemption? It comes, in those tiny inches for some, life-changing leaps for others, just like our own nonfiction existence.

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