JR: I found myself stuck for something to read years ago while on vacation in Newport, RI. I happened upon Music for Torching, and my life has never really been the same. AM Homes occupies my shadow, her fiction haunts everything I read, her work is either like what I’m reading, or aspiring to be half as good as any one of her novels. She is a powerful writer, and one that demands your respect.
I was stuck on This Book Will Save Your Life for a long time. I read it with a kind of childlike fascination that adults stare at with fascination, and whisper, “what’s wrong with this kid?” It was her “nice” novel, the first after 9-11, and snugly tucked on the West Coast. Music for Torching does for marriage what fast food does for your waist line. You’re ruined after you read it. I swear by the book, and have never read anything where marriage is thrown so swiftly under the bus, until now.
May We Be Forgiven is AM Homes triumph, her masterpiece, and crowning moment. Even the package reminds me of Updike, like she’s writing the new updated Rabbit series, and tearing it a new asshole as she does. Nothing overwhelmingly good happens in this book, and enough bad takes place at a slick-as-deer-guts pace, to make you wonder if her world is filled with only bad things. Or maybe that’s how she sees the world outside. DH and I decided that early was better when discussing this novel, and since I’m the one selling A.M. Homes soap on a rope, DH should go first, and maybe give our readers a little sketch of the premise.
DH: No, no, no JR, your take is wrong. I commend your great background on A.M. but you’re staining the new novel with your darker impression of her earlier books. Updike? Oh come on, not every American novel about suburban life is all about Updike. I have an alternative writer in mind as Homes’ inspiration.
May We Be Forgiven is about 480 pages of suburban insanity. But maybe you have to drive yourself crazy in order to have a shot at being really sane. The novel unfolds in picaresque style, a mass of anecdotes and subplots with a cast of characters large enough to make Dickens lose his place if A. M. Homes didn’t do such a great job of holding it all together.
All through my reading I kept asking myself: “Will all these shards of fictional brilliance pull themselves together in the end?” But there’s a beautiful arc to this tale, like the gateway arch in Saint Louis, and a new age spiritual journey in which you are allowed to say the f word frequently.
It’s a saga of family redemption. A family that’s solidly middle-class with Richard Nixon as its spiritual father. RN plays a vital role in this narrative, via a secret Nixon family archive carefully shepherded in a prestigious law firm’s Manhattan office by Julie Nixon Eisenhower. John Cheever would cheer his head off if he had an opportunity to read May We Be Forgiven. Cheever, bravo! Updike, allow me to show you to the exit.
We are at the posh Thanksgiving dinner of Jane and George Silver. Their two young children, Nathaniel and Ashley, home from respective boarding schools, are at table but glued to their portable devices. They seem like little robot children. I imagine a lot of the Silvers’ guests are busy kissing ass since George is their boss, the head of a television news department. Emmys, about six, and other awards in the form of tasteful crystal sculptures populate the house, as if one room wasn’t enough to contain them all. George is insufferable in his stardom.
At least his year-older brother, Harry, thinks so. He’s an academic who teaches a course on Nixon to a group of bored young things who have barely heard of RN and care even less. While carrying gravy sloshed platters to the kitchen, he’s kissed by Jane. It’s: I want what my brother has, that includes his wife.
Harry will get his chance. First by stepping into his sister-in-law’s mouth and then stepping into her house. Homes lets loose the furies on the arrogant media star, George Silver. It seems he goes berserk and rams a white van containing a family. Only the child in that family survives.
AM sets up George as unstable very well. Earlier, he happens to bump into an ashcan in his driveway. Infuriated, he runs over the can repeatedly, throwing his children, who are in the back seat, into hysterics. George shows no remorse that he has killed a couple of folks and made their son an orphan. Quote: I’ve got bad aim.
With George out of action, restrained in a hospital for everyone’s protection, Harry steps into his shoes and takes over his household. He gets what’s perhaps his secret wish. Harry replaces his more successful brother.
I wonder, how do you explain why George is crazy? Maybe that’s not important. We just know that he is. But what do you think of Harry? What kind of a guy is he? Details. Details. So many in this novel that I am drunk on them. But I love the drunk.
JR: Point well taken. I understand why you think this isn’t Updike. The Rabbit series was about how insane the suburbs make you. It killed marriages, wiped them clean or irony, and present early versions of terrible children, or assholes in training. “Why are you like this?” Someone will ask Ashley in a bar in twenty years, maybe a boyfriend or online date, “I watched my father kill my mother with a lamp, while my uncle slept alongside her in bed.” Oh. George and Harry are brothers that hate each other and have vacated their relationship for corners unknown or selfish. Harry fills Georges shoes because it’s so easy, money has made George blind, then in a fit of glorious anger he kills people. Because that’s what happens when you get everything. You think that everything means nothing.
The American dream is a nightmare. Everyone got what they wanted and now they don’t want it, and are miserable about it. Harry doesn’t wish for anything, it is thrust upon him, with great flourish and powerful detail. His career is over, and his life as a born again father is just starting. Nathaniel and Ashley are symptoms of a great disease, kids of money, and they don’t care how selfish they are. Actually, they have no idea.
Over the course of four landmark novels, Updike drills down into Harry Angstrom, much like AM does with these brothers. But she does it in under 500 pages, and each sliver of detail is more damning than the last. George being locked up but not in jail, he’s at arms length, but might come home. What the darkness holds might just be George, and at the very least he’s the scarier version of Harry. By the time Harry dips his toe into a “stranger”, he’s just going along to get along, and doesn’t really know how to stop. He can’t step around the puddles AM lays in his path. He’s just like Harry Angstrom in Rabbit Redux, picking up a strange girl in a bar, falling in love, and then, presto, tragedy. Harry surrounds himself with an incredibly diverse collection of damaged goods, pick-ups, craziness, and almost disasters. It’s a thrill a second, and I don’t mean in the Dan Brown way, it’s AM and her wild magic.
But it’s Cheever too. I forget the story, where the wife accidentally on purpose tries to poison the husband. And he gets wise to it, but not before he realizes his own horrors. It’s like Mad Men when the husband takes his wife in for shock therapy because she’s so “blue”. These kinds of worlds existed, and where Updike and Cheever played them in stereo, AM blasts them out of floor to ceiling speakers. By the time Harry gets around to going to the extra mile for his “new” family, he’s so blistered with experience that it almost doesn’t matter what he does. As long as he keeps these kids alive.
Richard Nixon is a rabbit hole for Harry to draw sustenance. It’s nothing more than a character that can’t talk or act, like a handy irrefutable argument at a dinner party. No one can debate the holocaust, especially when there is a survivor in the room. If you have an expert on hand, who will argue? Nixon had Kennedy killed? I can’t recall if Harry says this, or hears it. Okay, I believe you, because you are the end all be all when it comes to Nixon. It is a fascinating armature for AM to weave into this book. From thirty-thousand feet it looks like she’s completely eviscerating marriage and suburban ideals. At ground zero she’s making mincemeat out of anyone who looks at her twice, and anyone that does, she grabs by the lapels and tells refuses to let them look away from her story. Harry and George are the Cal and Adam Trask of our time, more East of Eden than East of Eden.
DH: That’s eloquent, JR: the most brilliant, sustained argument I’ve heard you make on this blog and that’s saying quite a lot for we’ve been at it for years. It’s like you’re writing the book on American suburban life. I can’t add anything or subtract anything from your argument. So I have no rhetorical choice but to put it to one side.
I saw Homes as working through all this dense material, fighting to get out from under it. When Ashley and Nate, George’s privileged, abandoned kids, urge the adoption of Ricardo, the plump, dysfunctional survivor of George’s violence, Homes remarks that it’s the way with kids to think that everything can be made all right, that the damage that adults think is irreparable can be mended.
And guess what, Homes is believing that too. Ricardo is taken in, has his underprivileged status revoked. He undergoes a physical transformation, loses weight, stops his binge eating and his medications and develops some athletic ability that I was startled to see that this clumsy kid had. Almost throughout the story, AM’s depiction of children is consistently uplifting. The only exception is the opening of the novel when his kids are still under the baleful influence of George the psychopath.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Harry goes for a sexual tryst based on his scanning of internet sex sites. He goes to the Philip Johnson-like all glass house in a chic suburb and is entrapped by a pair of tykes, a brother and sister, who have seen the Predator show on TV and decide to catch a perpetrator while their parents are away.
It’s an act of profound symbolism, the children handcuffing the adult, calling him to account for his sexual immaturity. It’s moving the way Harry talks the kids into letting him go…incredibly convincing the kids…the kids!…that they need to take charge of their own lives and bring their unsatisfactory parents to heel.
As part of a story arc of profound parallelism, I loved the endgame subplot about the seniors that Harry ends up taking in. They are the parents of Amanda, one of Harry’s pickups that I almost lost count of.
Harry invites them over for dinner and they arrive with suitcases. After dinner, they climb up to Harry’s bedroom and move in. Amanda plays along and everyone agrees that her parents should stay for a few days. Gradually. Amanda brings over personal stuff that they would need. Then Amanda leaves the scene for a long weekend. She’s been her parents’ caregiver for years and now its time for her to have a break.
Homes has the young kid Ashley break the news to Harry that Amanda is not coming back. I find this hilarious. The child can see what Harry is too dense to notice, that he’s been had. Amanda has dumped her aging, high maintenance parents on Harry.
Harry has developed broad shoulders during this 500 page novel. He accepts the situation and moves to a spare room behind the kitchen…like the maids room. Not only is Ricardo adopted as a wayward child but Amanda’s parents are taken into the family as well. It’s no wonder that Harry’s mother, over the second Thanksgiving feast that closes the novel, asks who the heck are these people who act like they are part of the family! Hilarious. Heartwarming. Moving.
A. M. Homes has taken the putrefied, upper middle class American suburban family, ripped it to shreds and flushed it down. She has the creation of a new American family model in mind. One that is tolerant and open and that shoulders extra responsibilities because it has the material resources to do so.
And now I have to say a good word about Richard Nixon. It’s amazing to me, and not to say wildly improbable, that so many decades after his death, I am prepared to revive the idea of a new Nixon. AM invents a secret Nixon archive in which he has tried his hand at short story writing, delineating the American Dream through literature. I guess that would make Nixon the anti-Updike and the anti-Cheever, if only he could write.
It’s as if there was a stump of an idea that the Nixonian dream of a lower middle class America that could realize its dreams might be restarted somehow. Only this time with less provincialism and more tolerance.
And I have to say since it’s an identity thing with me, that I nearly teared up when Harry encounters the cretin in the pharmacy who opines that when gay partners adopt children, the agencies give them the leftover kids that nobody else wants. Harry throttles the guy.
JR my brother, you’re on a roll. How about one more comment? Anything else to say about May We Be Forgiven? Do you see any light beyond the suburban gloom? What a great novel! I’m done, JR. But add a coda if you want.
JR: you’re too kind DH, but, I will say this, you give me a lot to talk about. What AM has done here is surgically eviscerate the suburban ideal, family, house, marriage and recreate it using Nixon as a cipher. It’s beyond East of Eden, that’s just me being cheeky. It is fair to say that she’s done this before, but not this wide a swath. I love George’s anger being just, well, anger. Harry is sympathetic without being a loser, because he’s got to pick up the pieces. AM’s hatred for the rest of the world comes up only when Harry interacts with a stranger. The FBI guys, the men at the lodge, the lawyer, and he is at his wit’s end immediately with everyone. That tells me that Harry can only relate to this “new” family that AM has thrust on him. Without Nixon’s short stories, Harry is lost, and they are the key to everything. These lost missives hastily transport Harry to the future where he actually is interacting with his family. Sure, it is ham-fisted, and without wobbling faults, but it’s like Nixon and the general public have driven Harry into hiding, a cave if you want to call it, where his family is happy to see him. The turning point comes when Amanda and Harry are having sex in the tent outside and watch a CCTV image of her father raping her mother. It’s so Nixon. Beyond voyeuristic, and the symbolism is pure, like cane sugar. I felt a rush of joy and sadness as Harry climaxed on top of Amanda, and somehow busted the book open, spilling the entire shooting match on the floor for us to see. I think we’ve said it, but I’ll say it again, this book is beyond great.