Alice Black, great-great-granddaughter of the psychologist and philosopher William James and sometime biologist-cum-bartender from California’s Central Valley, has been drifting through her life when she’s summoned to Los Angeles to housesit a beautiful old Arts and Crafts cottage and serve as caregiver to her highly educated but occasionally dotty old auntie, James’s great-granddaughter. Alice undergoes a manifestation or hallucination or genuine paranormal experience in the prologue that foreshadows, along with multiple subthemes, its “Jamesian” preoccupation with one of the varieties of religious experience.
Along with Alice and her Aunt Kate, Jamesland includes a fat, witty, embittered formerly successful chef Pete Ross, who’s crashed and burned, been suicidal, and now lives with his strict mother. He’s marking-time in his life by self-medicating, working at the Bread Basket, a Catholic charity, hanging out with the homeless at the Los Angeles river, and asking the question “How do people live in this world?”
The other major character is a Universalist Unitarian minister with a Ph.D., Helen Harland, who’s much more balanced than the other two but who’s worried about her lack of rapport with her congregants. Helen dresses down but is nonetheless striking and tall and has a reasonably successful sex life. She institutes midweek presentations at what she calls the church of Christ without Christ where the lame don’t leap and the blind don’t see. She’s a rational, deeply questing spiritual truth-seeker who eventually pulls in all hands. And all hands—almost—eventually join in the traditional comic ending.
Alice breaks with her two boyfriends, sexy, married Nick and All-American, sweet-natured Dewey; Helen breaks-up with Lewis, an alcoholic counselor carried over from Michelle Huneven’s first novel Round Rock (1997); and Pete breaks away from failure, self- pity, and his severe mother. Enormous changes at the not-quite last minute as the characters manage to get past the manifold possibilities of psychic disaster of which William James was acutely aware and learn how to live in the world, maybe even to thrive.