William Luvaas Going Under

ISBN 13: 9780399139680

Going Under

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9780399139680: Going Under
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Going Under chronicles the deterioration of a family ravaged by drink, abuse, and deceit.  Jeff and Meena (13 and 15) must cope with an unreliable, philandering father (Don) and an unstable, alcoholic mother (Jerri) who slowly deteriorates into psychosis. As Jerri Tillotson sinks in a morass of irrationality and despair, she threatens to drag her children down with her before the story reaches its harrowing climax.  Yet, within this domestic tragedy, there persists the puckish humor and rich fantasy life of childhood as the kids invent strategies for survival.  Meena turns into a human spider, creeping about the house and spying on her dysfunctional family, spinning webs to protect herself from her abusive half-brother, Olsen.  Jeff digs a tunnel behind the house with his neighborhood pals-an underground shelter from the turmoil above ground.  The story comes to an unexpected climax in this ragged hole in the ground. 
          The Tillotson children confront their dilemma with ingenuity, courage, and mutual devotion, and, in the end, they triumph.  Set in the 1960s and told from the children's and their Aunt Debbie's point of view, Going Under is a poignant and emotionally powerful tale about the darker side of the human spirit and the consequences for those least prepared to understand them.


Nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award



GOING UNDER PAINTS TRAGIC PICTURE
            "Start reading, and you are immediately taken into the hellish life of the Tillotson family....This is a family that to outward appearances in the early 1960s was ideal: handsome Don with his fast-track career, movie-star beautiful Jerri, boy-child Jeff and girl-child Meena living on a cul-de-sac in a quiet Oregon town.  As Jerri's younger sister Debbie says:
"Nobody ever saw a thing in those places.  You could do a strip-tease in the cul-de-sac, set up a guillotine, throttle the kids.  Nobody would be the wiser.  They huddled inside around TV football and miniature pool tables.  Minded their own.  Didn't give a 'fing **** what happened across the street.  Why should they?  This is a democracy after all."
            But behind the front door on Walnut Street is a tornado.  Don can't keep his mitts off Debbie, Jerri keeps booze stashed in everything from bleach bottles to mayonnaise jars, the better to drown her memories of being sexually abused by her father and brother.  Don's son from his first marriage, Olson, is a creepy adolescent with one hand on his crotch and the other on his half-sister.
            Luvaas has created here a terrible and tragic picture of the ways family dysfunctions appear in succeeding generations.  Jerri is hypervigilant in watching for signs of little Meena being abused, but seizes upon the wrong perpetrator.  Her towering rages chase Don out of the house and terrify the children, who develop classic defense mechanisms to cope.  Jeff literally runs underground, digging with his neighborhood friends a 20-foot-deep tunnel.  Meena turns herself into a watchful, silent spider, wrapping bits of contraband in layers of monofilament and crisscrossing her bedroom window with an elaborate web....
            Reading going under is like watching a train wreck happen before your eyes. It's horrifying, powerful stuff you can't tear your eyes away from."
            Susan L. Rife,  Wichita Eagle
 
"The story is a page-turner, as they say, and the characters convincingly depicted."
William Vollman, National Book Award winning author of Europe Central
 
"I found GOING UNDER to be powerful, moving, frequently funny, and ultimately positive.  Luvaas portrays the members of a dysfunctional family with compassion and insight."
Stephen Minot, author 

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From the Author:

            In my novel Going Under, I wanted to explore a "dysfunctional" family from a child's perspective.  Disaster appears imminent in the Tillotson family, beginning with the symbolism of Mammoths sinking in the La Brea Tar Pits when the Tillotsons visit L.A. early in the novel--and the truck running over Jeff in the river scene, pushing him down into soft mud.  The question is how and when it will strike.  The sibling narrators, Jeff and Meena, cope as best they can with an unreliable father (Don) and an unstable, alcoholic mother (Jerri), who deteriorates into psychosis as the novel progresses, so that by book's end her children must feed and bathe her, while she relives her  tragic past. They must also contend with their half brother Olson, the incestuous, malign offspring of Don's first marriage.  Jeff blames himself for his family's troubles, Meena spins webs of nylon filament to protect herself from Olson and creeps about the house like a spider, half believes she is one.
            Within the construct of a family horror story, I wanted to reflect something of the puckish humor of childhood, which persists even through disaster and provides comic relief.  There is the "tunnel" that Jeff digs with neighborhood boys (the novel's central metaphor) and Meena's zany-often creepy-fascination with spiders.
            The novel is character driven.  While mother Jerri's inner storms often dominate the action, we see them from the outside-from the children's and her sister's points of view-and can only surmise what is happening in her head.  As I say, I wanted to view this family train wreck from the children's perspective.  This point-of-view choice was crucial to the novel's evolution.  Family disasters usually hit children hardest, but we rarely see how they experience such tragedies, how it affects them emotionally and psychologically, and what they make of their parents' behavior, which deeply impacts their young lives but which they have no control over.  They are the silent victims of their parents' bad choices and character flaws. In the Tilloltson's case, father Don is a womanizer and charlatan, shallow and selfish, always putting himself before his family.  Mother Jerri is a hopeless drunk, drowning in depression and haunted by the past, putting her own addictions before her children. 
            Aunt Debbie serves as the point of view foil, a necessary adult perspective in all the chaos-at least I felt it necessary-and finally a rescuer.  Her view of things is necessarily different from the children's.  The contrast in perspective is telling.  I wanted to show that children  perceive and understand things in a wholly different way than we view them as adults.  At times the difference is humorous, at times ironic, at times heart-wrenchingly poignant.
            Deceit is at the novel's heart.  Drinking, sexual abuse, neglect...all are here, but the novel (as I see it) explores the dishonesty, literal and emotional, that erodes trust and makes a mockery of "family values."  Homes are too often unkind, even deadly places.  Beyond political and religious bromides and sentimental self-congratulation, neglect and unhappiness are often our true "family values."  Denial corrodes any hope of healing, since we can't correct what we won't acknowledge.  As Tolstoy, Freud, and psychiatrist Sylvano Arietti inform us, home is the place where our personal troubles begin-wounds that may fester and destroy lives.  I am fascinated and deeply troubled by this motif.  I wrote Going Under as an exploration of the crimes, both physical and emotional, that family members commit against one another.
            I also wanted to explore that tendency to pass along sad gifts from generation to generation-alcoholism, abuse, schizophrenia, neglect.  Here, the women are the greater victims of this legacy; the male characters seem to get away clean.  I believe this is often the case in a culture that validates male behavior more than female.  We forgive men their faults more quickly than we forgive women.  "It's just the way they are made," we tell ourselves.  "They don't mean to hurt anyone." 
            In tone and style, I wanted something verging on the hyperbolic, but not so far-fetched as to be unbelievable.  Something raw and real.   
            If a work is honest, I believe it largely writes itself.  I would like to believe Going Under is an honest work. It came to me relatively quickly and with great urgency, as if it needed to speak itself.  Who can say how this works?  I believe our best writing springs right out of the subconscious like Athena born from the head of Zeus.
            The book is in part-at least in inception-autobiographical.  Although my birth family was altogether different from the Tillotsons, my mother struggled with alcohol and depression, and we all paid a price for that.  My father was no Don Tillotson, but a responsible man, though emotionally handicapped.  Denial was a family coda.  No one would admit my mother was a drunk and emotionally unstable, or that she had been molested as a girl, or that I was an epileptic, or that we kids feared our mother's unpredictable moods, or that we did not eat dinner until ten o'clock, or that our home was anything but a model of domestic bliss.  But we were provided for, we were encouraged to excel at school, we did have an extended family, and our parents loved us as best they could.  In Going Under, I was surmising What if things had been much worse?  What if we had no support system?  What if we weren't provided for?  What would life be like then?  The book was based, as well, on my work with troubled teens at New York's Rockland State Hospital and elsewhere.  I have seen first hand what cruel homes can do to children and the remarkable courage and resiliency with which they endure them.



 
Going Under has been called a "dark" novel. What does that mean to you? What do you think about that description? Are you attracted to "darkness" as a writer or as a reader, or both?

I don't like labels. I believe labeling has helped to trash American publishing. Always needing to brand something and find a niche to fit it in. Labels are marketing handles, they have no place in the arts-which defy labels and categories....I really can't imagine sitting down and saying, "I am going to write a dark novel." You sit down and follow a story line, perhaps it takes you through dark territory--and light. There is much humor in GOING UNDER, too. But I definitely wouldn't call it "fiction light." It is simply a story about a family that can't get its act together.
                 -  From Susan Taylor Chehak's interview with me on Facebook

From the Back Cover:

"Going Under is told with power and authority as it explores a family's collapse into self-destruction and abuse.  Luvaas's great power as a storyteller brings the reader up out of these sorrows and into a sense of redemption that is triumphant and true."
 
                                                            -Frederick Busch
 
 
 
"Luvaas tells a terrible but absorbing story, and tells it movingly. I hope this book finds the wide readership it deserves."
                                                            -Larry McMurtry

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