May We Be Forgiven
AM Homes has written a kinder, gentler sort of satire
By Sarah Churchwell
May We Be Forgiven, A M Homes’s comic epic of modern America, inhabits a neighbourhood not far from what is still known as “Cheever country”. Before Mad Men or Revolutionary Road, before John Updike’s “Rabbit” Angstrom novels, it was John Cheever who was the bard of American suburban warfare, unforgettably mixing comedy and brutality, pathos and poetry, in stories that lay bare the emotional life of Americans like no others.
Cheever’s power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs. Or he can just as easily play it the other way: he opens the story by dropping you into a lake of fire and then slowly lifts your eyes up to the grandeur of the surrounding landscape (without actually rescuing you from the flames). That almost impossible blend of aching romanticism and sharp satire has only ever been bettered by F Scott Fitzgerald. It is a quintessentially American mode and very few can pull it off.
It is to her credit that Homes has so often been likened to Cheever; one hopes she is gratified by the comparison. For if May We Be Forgiven starts out in Cheever country, it soon heads for the hills, whence cometh our aid in the form of floods of pious sentimentality.
The novel opens with some of the blackest comedy in recent memory: Harry Silver, a depressed, middle-aged professor of Richard Nixon studies (the allusion to “Hitler studies” from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise is made explicit, as Silver keeps thinking that he sees DeLillo), attends Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his brother, George, a successful and hateful TV executive. Televisions blare from every room in the large suburban house; sycophantic colleagues court their obnoxious boss; George’s two children are glued to their electronic devices and his wife, Jane, is doing all the work in the kitchen. Harry can’t decide whether he despises or lusts after George’s life but he has no such ambivalence about his wife, with whom he is soon contemplating an affair. But George, who has what are sometimes called “anger management issues”, smashes into a car one night, killing a couple and orphaning their child (“I’ve got bad aim,” he remarks when asked how it happened). George comes home from the hospital to find Harry in bed with Jane, whom George promptly brains with a bedroom lamp.
George’s wealth and influence ensures that he is committed to an expensive “rest home”, while Jane is so brain-damaged that her parents turn off her life support. Harry’s wife divorces him and suddenly Harry is responsible for his niece and nephew, George’s home and his own life – and we haven’t hit page 50 yet.
Before long, the 48-year-old Harry has also lost his university job and had a stroke but this doesn’t stop him from embarking on a picaresque journey through the modern landscape of affluent American suburbia: his enthusiastic sex with suburban swingers ends when he is abducted by a couple of children who are not amused at the games he is playing with their mother; he picks up a young woman in a grocery store and is soon caring for her ageing parents, both of whom float in and out of dementia. Through one of his internet sex partners, Harry meets Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who lets him read a lost archive of Richard Nixon’s fiction, all of which details the dark side of the American dream.
Yet just as the darkness is growing promisingly rich, Homes begins to bathe us in cosy lamplight. Redemption arrives in the shape of George’s children, along with some help from the Hispanic boy whom George orphaned and even a tribe of wise Africans. One can only assume that such absurdities were meant to be part of the satire but, after her brutal start, Homes pulls one punch after another.
Neither of George’s children seems unduly traumatised by the murder of their mother and the incarceration of their father; they cry a bit but soon they brighten up. Harry’s 14-yearold nephew becomes the novel’s unlikely conscience: sage beyond his years, he tells his uncle that he spent the summer helping to build a village in South Africa that is now named after him (“Nateville”) and wants to send money to the grateful villagers. This must surely be a lampoon, a send-up of complacent American colonial philanthropy, yet Homes never yanks the rug from under these characters. They travel to Nateville, where Nate celebrates his bar mitzvah – but somehow this promisingly ludicrous idea is played for uplift, rather than for belly laughs.
The African villagers are indeed wise and grateful to the Americans and a shaman gives Harry a potion that releases his inner demons. The gratitude that none of the Silvers felt during Thanksgiving comes flooding in: George’s children declare that they are responsible for the boy their father orphaned in the car crash and the child’s grateful family hand him off to Harry – for which beneficence the child is equally grateful.
No one but George and Harry seem to struggle with rancour or resentment; soon, they have taken in the elderly parents from across the street, as well as the couple who run Harry’s favourite Chinese restaurant, and Harry’s married suburban mistress, whose husband is happy to join the fun. Harry’s 11-year-old niece is seduced by one of the teachers at her girl’s school; this, too, is treated as social comedy. No one is really hurt and the child returns safely to the bosom of her newly constituted family and Homes ensures their happy ending by resorting to actual buried treasure.
Clearly this is supposed to be a farcical ride through the absurdities of modern America but the comedy founders for the simple reason that heart-warming satire is an oxymoron: the one cancels out the other. May We Be Forgiven is an able book – it is capable, likeable and readable – but it is like a drink that claims to be nutritious because it has 10 per cent real fruit juice, although 90 per cent of it is sugar. There is some real satire here but it is drowning in saccharin. Nor is satire conducive to a world of good guys and bad guys: the balance is wrong, all the culpability is displaced on to George – and then rejected from the story altogether, as he disappears into prison, leaving behind one big happy family.
When Harry delivers his farewell lecture on Nixon, his students ask him how he will grade them: “I will be grading on a U-turn,” Harry answers. Moments like these make one hope that Homes is using Nixon to mock the very idea of unearned redemption but the sentimentality of the ending overtakes any such cynical dreams.
Michael Cunningham once called Homes “one of the bravest, most terrifying writers working today”. After its bravura first 50 pages, this book is neither brave nor terrifying: it is safe and consoling, a kinder, gentler satire – the kind that will probably ensure that May We Be Forgiven is forgiven all its faults and becomes very popular indeed. Consoling fictions often are.
Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby” will be published by Virago next year