‘Everything an intelligent person should want from a novel in other words’ – May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

‘This novel starts at maximum force,’ Salman Rushdie writes on the back of May We Be Forgiven, ‘and then it really gets going.’ He is not kidding. Things kick off at a Thanksgiving, where the narrator, Harry, has a crafty snog in the kitchen with his brother’s wife Jane. Within pages, the brother in question, George, has been involved in a car crash that has killed the mother and father of a young boy and wound up in a hospital seemingly not in possession of all of his faculties; Harry has begun a full-blown affair with Jane while his Chinese wife Claire is oversees on a trip; and George, having left the hospital in the middle of the night, has bashed in Jane’s brain with a nearby bedside lamp. Spoiler alert, you might think. Spoiler alert. But this really is the opening few pages. And Rushdie is right – the novel really doesn’t let up.

Harry, a professor and Nixon scholar struggling Grady Tripp-like through a biography, becomes the guardian for George and Jane’s children, Nate and Ashley, and takes up residence in the family home after his own wife kicks him out and divorces him. Financially safe thanks to George’s deft weaving of the market, Harry has a series of somewhat random adventures, from a brief obsession with nsa internet sauciness to his involvement in a collection of Nixon’s fiction, adventures that gradually accrue a strange and motley ensemble of hangers on.

‘You grow up thinking your family is normal enough [Nate tells Harry at one point], and then, all of a sudden, something happens and it’s not normal, and you have no idea how it got that way, and there’s really nowhere to go from here – it will never be normal again.’

What May We Be Forgiven reads like, then, is best described by Harry himself:

‘[I]t’s like I’m in endless free fall, the plummeting slowed only by the interruption of being summoned to do something for someone else. If it weren’t for the children, the dog, the cat, the kittens, the plants, I would come completely undone.’

By the end of the novel, you can add two women, one of the women’s ageing slightly demented parents, the family that run the local Chinese take-out, the family that run a sandwich place beneath the lawyers where he reads the Nixon stories and the child whose parents are killed at the beginning of the book to the list. And this is not to mention the ongoing strangeness resulting from his brother’s incarceration in an upscale mental home and, eventually, a woodsy retreat that sees him become involved in arms dealing.

‘We talk online,’ Homes writes,

‘we ‘friend’ each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to – we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a 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 true selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.’

There is wisdom, of sorts here, albeit articulated by someone who feels that his ‘ability to describe his experience is limited, with the nuances unarticulated’. Harry is on a journey, certainly, and the novel, charting as it does one year from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, follows him on that journey, and there is change but there is also terrific randomness. It’s like Douglas Coupland’s All Families are Psychotic refracted through different medication (where Coupland created a high contrast cartoon, Homes fashions a bizarre random sequence of couplings that unfolds with the benign cloud-cushioned simplicity glimpsed through a haze of Prozac or Lithium).

From this reader’s perspective it isn’t quite as good as her last novel, This Book Will Save Your Life (itself a great place to start if you’ve yet to dabble with Homes)- but this comes from the fact that there is a slight dying off (in terms of what you can take, more than anything else) around about the point that the family decamps to South Africa for a jaunt. In lots and lots of ways, this is a familiar American style: the strange American who learns a profound lesson and comes, Wonder Years-like, to gain a new respect for whatever it is. From Louis Begley’s About Schmidt to J Robert Lennon’s Mailman, this is arguably the narrative arc of the great American novel at this early stage of the new century. Homes’ contribution is as welcome and as entertaining and as much pleasure to read as all of the other entrants in this crowded cupboard (but next time we want something that blows our socks off a la The End of Alice, please!).

Any Cop?: Full of beautiful strange writing and unusual thoughts and compelling characters and humour and ruminations on what it is to be alive at this point in the history of the world – everything an intelligent person should want from a novel in other words!


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