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In a Family Way : HOME FREE By Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (Delacorte: $19.05; 304 pp.)

February 03, 1991|Judith Freeman | Freeman is the author of "The Chinchilla Farm," a novel that recently has been reissued in paperback by vintage

One would think, given the magnitude of the problem of homelessness in this country today, that the subject would have leaked its way into fiction. But American fiction in the last decade seemed to follow the minimalist path all the way to the bank, by way of middle-class concerns. The thinking among writers here seems to be, you have to live under a totalitarian system before you encounter social problems serious enough to write about.

However, a new novel by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey--whose first novel, "A Woman Of Independent Means," earned high praise--concerns itself almost exclusively with the subject of the homeless. The premise is this: Kate Hart, 45 years old, a relatively happy woman with a husband who directs films, a house in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood and a daughter in law school, learns on Christmas Eve that her husband Cliff is leaving her for a woman he met while shooting a film in Canada. That same night, Kate meets a homeless man named Ford when the car in which he is living stalls in front of her house.

Kate invites Ford into her house, suggests he take a shower in her husband's bathroom, outfits him in his clothes, and sends him on his way with Cliff's Christmas presents and the turkey from the oven.

Ford's wife Sunny and their children, 10-year-old Joe Wayne and 6-year-old Marvella, are staying in a shelter downtown. In no time at all, Ford and his family are invited by Kate to come live with her. In exchange for a roof over their heads, Ford will help Kate fix up her house and sell it so that she can be financially independent now that her husband is gone. Since the house has been appraised at $2 million, it should foot the bill for a while.

There is more to the story, although it primarily follows these two tracks--one being the way Ford and his family struggle to get themselves back on their feet; the other, Kate's efforts to come to terms with the rejection by her husband of 25 years and the discovery of a startling piece of news about her adopted daughter Nina.

Given these bare facts, it must be said that there's something terribly wrong with this picture. As much as one wished "Home Free" succeeded in being an engrossing novel, as well as one which brought more understanding to the real problem of homelessness, it in fact does neither.

Why not? In part because the story feels stuck in another time, loaded with sentimentality, a kind of Lassie-style goodness that undermines credibility. The story careens recklessly toward the preposterous--not once, or twice, but repeatedly.

For one thing, Hailey has chosen to make Ford a belly-up farmer from Iowa, an all-American guy with no vices and little depth. The farm which has been in his family for generations is lost in foreclosure, forcing him to head for California to try and find work. Does this sound familiar? In the hands of the masterful Steinbeck, this story became a classic, but if it's to be told again, it needs a better updating than it's given in "Home Free."

It would have been much more honest to have picked a different figure to embody the homeless today, another kind of family for Kate to house, one which might have provided both more tension and reality. I got the distinct feeling in this novel that the homeless had to fit the author's criteria of worthiness before they deserved sympathy. Witness this passage, where Kate is speaking to her daughter Nina:

"I felt guilty living in this big house all by myself, so I'm sharing it with a family who didn't have anywhere else to go..."

"When did you acquire this concern for the homeless . . . ?"

"The first time I saw a picture of a family living in their car. Before that, I thought people who slept on the street were there because they didn't want to work--you know, drunks, bums--people who'd walked out on their families, turned their back on society. I didn't have much sympathy for them. But a whole family forced to live in a broken-down car . . . well, it changed the way I felt completely."

Ford, Sunny and their children, for all of Hailey's efforts to make them come alive, remain flat figures, in part, one suspects, because they must represent the "family" worthy of sympathy (as is also the case with the single Hispanic mother and her baby, whom Kate also takes in toward the novel's end). But what about the single black man, the guy down on his luck, and, yes, even the alcoholic, the addict, the "bum." Are we to write them off? If we are to believe this novel's formulaic conclusion, they too would have to be taken in by the producers and directors, the actors and actresses, who Kate suggests should open their houses in Los Angeles to the homeless while they're away on location.

Come on. Is this the answer? Kate is a woman too obtuse, too fuzzy, to see clearly what a horrible, reprehensible creep her husband is, to recognize how shallow and self-serving a daughter she's raised. We are asked to believe that only by watching videos of her husband's past movies has she come to understand what a deep and sensitive fellow he is. Now she's going to commit herself, and her money from real-estate speculation, to housing the homeless. But one suspects they'll be carefully screened.

And this, above all, is the objection I have to this novel. I wanted more, more truth. We can carp all we want to about the obscenity, the pornography of Brett Easton Ellis' vision, and the garbage he may be inflicting on us. But what about the other extreme? There's no going back to Jimmy Stewart and June Allison, or the dewy-eyed goodness of Timmy's mom. We're in the rough-and-tumble '90s. John Steinbeck, where are you?

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