May We Be Forgiven
Admirers of Jonathan Franzen or Siri Hustvedt will love AM Homes's masterful dissection of modern American life
By Viv Groskop
Brothers Harry and George have never got on. The younger one, George, is a television executive, king of the sitcom, with a dozen-plus Emmys that have "seeped out of his office and are now scattered around the house". He's an arrogant bully with Oscar-worthy anger-management issues.
In stark contrast, Harry lives an ordered, predictable life of decency and quiet desperation as a slightly hopeless Richard Nixon scholar. Until, that is, Harry, the supposedly shy and retiring one, ends up in a Thanksgiving clinch with Jane, George's wife. It was sort of bound to happen. While George's anger is all outward and violent, Harry, our narrator, has always seethed inside. Here's the contents of his head: "He [George] was at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself. I kept watching him as I went back and forth carrying plates into the kitchen… With every trip… I hated him more."
After years of acquiescence to his younger sibling, Harry's kiss with Jane, his hand still inside the turkey carcass, is an act of self-assertion and betrayal that might have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that two months later George goes into meltdown and Jane turns to Harry for help. The responsible older brother's "help" now takes on a sexual dimension.
AM Homes is a masterful dissector of modern American life. She excels in portraying the minutiae of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?), creating characters who are both repellent and magnetic. Her writing exerts a push-pull that feels like being in a hall of mirrors. You want to run away but you find yourself compelled to look at the reflection.
The author of This Book Will Save Your Life, a novel about a wealthy trader with nothing left to live for, and The End of Alice, a dark retelling of Lolita, Homes has turned to television in recent years, writing for The L Word and developing an HBO series, The Hamptons. May We Be Forgiven sometimes reads like a brilliant miniseries. I gorged on it like a DVD boxset.
Ostensibly the plot is about picking apart what really happened to George. It seems that he has crashed his car and killed two people. With his history, however, was the "crash" really unintentional? But is he bad or just mad? And what of Harry? He seems likable and sympathetic, but when it comes down to it, he is having sex with his brother's wife while his brother is in a maximum-security hospital. That can't be good.
The real story becomes about how Harry is going to cope with his life imploding, seemingly through no fault of his own – or at least none that he recognises. As his own marriage falls apart, he finds himself experimenting with internet dating, reigniting his passion for Nixon and, finally, attempting to make ludicrously overcompensatory amends to the boy who was orphaned in George's crash. Or is there any such thing as overcompensation in a case like this?
It's a novel about forgiveness, family, intimacy, consumerism and the myth of success. Some of the most hilarious scenes poke fun at therapy culture, with George's counselling team attempting to reconcile the brothers as they fight over who is going to look after George's dog. Harry's ready to forgive. George is ready to physically attack.
AM Homes can't really be compared to any other writer; no one else is quite as dark and funny and elegant all at the same time. May We Be Forgiven has the narrative intensity of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and the emotional punch of Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, all told through the eyes of Larry David. It's the best thing I've read this year.