A novelist haunts the Old West Side
From the February, 2009 issue
Valerie Laken played a mean second base on the O Team-the Observer's co-rec softball team-a few years back. I usually played catcher, and I enjoyed chatting with her on the bench or over postgame beers. She had a house on the Old West Side a few blocks from mine, and to my surprise she was interested in details of murders in the neighborhood.
She was writing a book, she said-a novel inspired by a murder that took place in the house she and her husband owned.
Right, I thought then. Who in Ann Arbor isn't planning to write a book?
But Laken, who has an M.F.A. from the U-M, was already publishing short stories and winning prizes. She scored a two-book contract with Harper even before leaving town in 2006 to teach creative writing in Wisconsin.
Sure enough, in her newly released debut novel, Dream House, a shooting in an old Ann Arbor house anchors the action, past and present. There's not a dull moment as a quartet of main characters ricochet off one another for 350 pages. One killed a man for complex reasons and wants to be done paying the price. Another, a high school shop teacher, seems destined to clean up other people's messes. A young woman, a math teacher, is on a collision course with the psychic weight of nightmares she doesn't understand. Her husband, stuck in suspended animation from his college years, dodges "attempts at charity that could end in your own ruin."
I read the whole book in a weekend and haven't felt the same since. I'm wandering my neighborhood these days on the stage set of a hyperreal world. To enter Washtenaw Dairy is to retrace the steps of Laken's shell-shocked Walker Price, who after the shooting lays his gun on the counter and quietly tells the ice cream scoopers, "Call the police, please. I just shot my mother's boyfriend." Signs of local home-improvement projects suddenly suggest unfinished people, like protagonist Kate Kinzler, struggling
with a lot more than drywall. I peer down side yards and imagine shadowy figures moving through vine-choked secret arbors unlike anything we conjure up in the Old West Side Garden Club.
In an audacious move, Laken maroons her characters on either side of the racial and socioeconomic divide between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Her intense fantasy Ann Arbor picks up where Nancy Willard (Sister Water) and Charles Baxter (Feast of Love) left off. Like them, she haunts familiar houses and can freak you out with flashbacks of experiences you never had.
I recognized my Old West Side neighborhood in the first paragraph of Dream House. Laken describes a house "the gray-blue of dishwater" with "no dormers or bay windows or Victorian details-just that blunt, workman's box and triangle, fronted by a wooden porch that sagged toward the street." While I might not know the exact house she's describing, I can point to dozens that will pass for it. Ditto for the busybody middle-aged neighbor who "had gone so far on his health craze he looked as desperate and spent as a junkie in nylon tank shirt and short shorts."
Despite such evocative descriptions, Laken says that her fiction isn't really about the world she lived in here: "I keep thinking that maybe when I'm old and gray I'll have earned the right to write a true story, but the fact is I have an unreliable memory and will probably have forgotten or embellished everything by then. I suppose this is why I'm drawn to fiction; I instinctively feel the need to embellish every story."
Which might explain an image I've been dwelling on since reading Dream House: when she lived nearby, I used to regularly see Laken walking her dog on the streets of the Old West Side. She didn't amble or look about. She was always striding energetically, ponytail swinging, chin up, eyes forward but barely focused. I realize now that she had already moved beyond observing our turn-of-the-century workers' cottages-her brain was busy embellishing the characters she was putting into those structures, deciding the lifelong effects they would have on each other.
"I fell in love with every member of the Price family as I wrote them," admits Laken, who reads from the book at Shaman Drum at 7 p.m. on February 5 (see Events). "And it was comforting and enlightening to get beyond my narrow personal experience of the house and begin to experience it as others might have."
The biggest lingering question I have about the truthiness of Dream House is hardly central to the plot: I keep wondering whether a group of teachers at nearby "Frontier High School" really do have a secret party every August when they break into the school, get smashed, and indulge in a bacchanal around the varsity pool.
Coyly, Laken won't say.
[Originally published in February, 2009.]
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