Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Eileen Pollack: At Home with the Militia, from Ann Arbor Online

Eileen Pollack, former director of the U-M creative writing MFA program, has never been afraid of taking on big themes and big subjects. Among her former students--including several who have gone on to enjoy large international reputations--she is famous for always suggesting, if not insisting, that their stories and novels be about something. She uses her own fiction to wrestle with uncomfortable political and social issues.

In Breaking and Entering, her recently released novel, she has done it again, but this time the subject is closer to home. Pollack's protagonist, Louise Shapiro, and her husband and child have moved from the Bay Area to rural southwestern Michigan. Louise is more than a little smug, self-righteous, paranoid, and desperately lonely. She has reason to be lonely: her therapist husband, Richard, has withdrawn from her, forcing his family to move after a client he was infatuated with killed herself. He has taken a job as a therapist in the local Michigan prison, and the job is clearly the most useful thing he has ever done, even as it alienates him even further from his wife.

As the old joke says, even paranoids have enemies. The novel takes place over the spring and summer of 1995; very early on, the characters learn about the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and, soon after, about Timothy McVeigh. Some of Louise's neighbors are members of the Michigan Militia, and their meeting ground is the Sportsman's Gun Club down the road, where, on his way south to Oklahoma City, McVeigh may or may not have stopped for a beer. The janitor at the school where Louise works part-time as a social worker hosts a radio show where he shouts racist and anti-Semitic rants. "Mike from Michigan" is his radio moniker, and none of us who've been around here for a while have to stretch very far to find tha model. Louise's Jewish husband is fascinated with the gun culture espoused by his militia neighbors, using that interest as yet another way to withdraw from his wife.

Louise takes up with the local Unitarian minister, and their affair becomes the center of her life, moving from passion into the realm of obsession. It is clearly doomed from the start, and the unraveling of it all--the inevitable failure of the love affair and the cultural and physical assaults on Louise herself--becomes the center of this novel. As the title indicates, Louise breaks--or is broken--but whether she is ever able to enter is the uncertainty and profound sadness that Pollack leaves with us.

Eileen Pollack reads from Breaking and Entering at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, January 18.