Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A. M. Homes's May We Be Forgiven

A. M. Homes's new novel, May We Be Forgiven, is a horrific satire of the American Dream, laced with grief and a weird, unexpected sweetness after a tragedy undoes a wealthy family.  Although the style is unobtrusive, this superb book is so expertly plotted that only the narrator's musings on the American Dream could keep it off the best-seller list.  

The novel begins on Thanksgiving, and if you like to read about dysfunction on the holidays, you will enjoy this, but I'll warn you--it goes pretty far.  Maybe too far.

The quiet narrator, Harold Silver, is a respected Nixonologist who is writing a book on Nixon and teaching a Nixon class at a college.  His insanely successful brother, George, however, has achieved a titanic version of American dream:  George, the raging, power-mad head of a TV news network, has a perfect wife, two children at expensive schools, a beautiful house in the suburbs, and a superabundance of money.

A. M. Homes
On Thanksgiving, George's wife Jane kisses Harold in the kitchen, and this is a bit of the American Dream for bland Harold, because nothing much ever happens to him.  His life with his quiet Chinese-American lawyer wife, Claire, is based on routine and Chinese takeout.

The American Dream can only be achieved by the wealthy, and then they fuck it up.  George fucks it up bigtime.  He has a car accident and kills a family.  Only the child survives. 

Almost any paragraph in Homes's book can be picked out to convey the fascination of her unembellished prose.  Here is an excerpt of gruesome dialogue at a suburban police station between police officers and Harold after George's accident.

"Car accident, bad one.  Doesn't appear he was under the influence, passed a breath test and consented to urine, but really he should see a doctor."
"Was it his fault?"

"He ran a red light, plowed into a minivan, husband was killed on impact, the wife was alive at the scene--in the back, next to the surviving boy.  Rescue crew used the Jaws of Life to free the wife, upon release she expired."
 "Her legs fell out of the car," someone calls out of a back office.   

But the situation gets worse.  So much worse.  And that is why the novel is at times grimly comical.  Homes piles it on.

Harold stays with Jane after George is admitted to the psych hospital.  They sleep together.  Then George walks out of the hospital in a nightmarish daze, comes home and finds Jane and Harold in bed, and kills Jane.

From this point, the lives of both brothers fall apart. George is slapped into a fancy rich person's mental hospital, and later into an experimental survival camp for convicts. 

Harold is a passive guy.  He is deeply traumatized by recent events.  He moves into
George's house (and his wife divorces him), is cluelessly responsible for the well-being of his 12-year-old nephew, Nate, and 11-year-old niece, Ashley, both at boarding schools, and has to take care of the house, pets, and yard. Then he has a small stroke, and it is all he can do to take care of the house and its various minders.   He also has reluctant sex with women he meets on the internet and at the A&P. He doesn't want relationships, but women come after him.  Especially disturbed women.   

He is also deeply immersed in "Nixon Studies."  He meditates on the relationship between American entitlement  and the American downfall, and analyzes the "psychological progression of presidents" from Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon.  Harold knows Nixon was deeply flawed, and that Watergate was a crime, but he admires  Nixon's tenacity, especially in China.  And Harold is so out of touch with the culture that he doesn't realize his job is on the line:  nobody knows who Nixon is anymore.  

His relationship with the children is funny and realistic.  It involves a lot of spending money on vacations to win trust, but they also become fond of one another. Nate and Ashley are both well-drawn characters.  If you've attended or taught at boarding schools, you know all too well the superficially sophisticated, spoiled kids who may be as vacuous as the characters in Gossip Girl or as brave as Sara Crewe in A Little Princess or as rebellious but deeply ethical as Dan once he turns around at Plumfield in Little Men.  

The kids have problems.  Nate, a jock, has an illicit business lending money at school, but has also built a school in South Africa and the town is named after him. Ashley, a nice, innocent girl was seduced by the Head of the Lower School after her mother's death.  She can't face all that has happened, so comes home and works on a project about soap operas, narratives, and puppet theater.  Nate and Ashley insist that  Harold should adopt Ricardo, the child of the couple killed in a car crash, and they take him with them to Williamsburg, VA, for a vacation.

In May We Be Forgiven, real relationships are familial, but they also revolve around spending money.  One wonders what happens to the poor waifs who can't lie around the house and eat Chinese food all day. Harold even takes the children to South Africa for Nate's Bar Mitzvah.  Now that is over the top.

 But money is necessary to the action here. Without money, this family couldn't unravel and ravel.  After losing his job, Harold would have been too busy working at something else to nurture George's American dream.  (Harold does get to work on some lost short stories by Nixon, though.)

Harold, who now has relationships to worry about, muses about the sad state of relationships in American society.

"We talk online, we 'friend' each other when we don't know who we are really talking to--we fuck strangers.  We mistake almost anything for a real relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version--it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight."

 Yes, this sounds like all of us.

I loved the book.  I would say Homes has matured since, many years ago, I read one of her stories in which a couple sees a news story about crack and decide to try it because it looks like fun.  

Now I will have to go back and see what else she has written.

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