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The Safety of Objects

Washington Post

September 1990

The Dark Danger In 'Safety'

By Margaret Camp

A.M. Homes's collection of short stories, The Safety of Objects, is anything but safe. However, the objects are less threatening than the wacko characters in this enthralling spiral into surrealist hell, a trip that might be simply appalling if it weren't so full of subversive humor and truth.

Homes's first novel, Jack, was written from the perspective of a teenage boy who learns that his father is gay. It is a sensitive, realistic story with a worthwhile lesson presented humorously enough to keep from sounding preachy. The novel broaches a difficult subject, but it never feels dangerous the way these stories do. Each of them stakes out a different kind of forbidden territory.


Homes's characters seem like us on the surface. They are awkward, vulnerable, a little overwhelmed, not always sure of the answers. But Homes exaggerates their oddities, then holds them under a high-powered microscope.

The first story, "Adults Alone," depicts a middle-class woman who takes the kids to her mother-in-law's and "drops them off like they're dry cleaning." She returns home to her husband and eventually, between seven-thirty and quarter-to-eight, when there is no more getting around it, she looks at him. She thinks she can actually see his hairline receding, follicle by follicle.

She lets him eat cholesterol-laden fettuccine because "she doesn't like him and doesn't care what he does and wishes he would die soon," but also "because she loves him and can't deny him his pleasures and is determined not to act like his mother."

They have little in common until they watch a special report on crack cocaine, decide it looks fun and buy six vials of it. Smoking crack brings them together: the solution to middle-class desperation.

Other stories feature characters ranging from the mildly disturbed to the seriously demented. In "Looking for Johnny," a young boy, who possesses minimal self-esteem to start with, receives the ultimate rejection when his kidnapper returns him saying, "You're not the kid I'd thought you'd be."

The narrator of "Jim Train" savors his self-delusions. "I enjoy large thoughts.... My thoughts are my food.... I have to eat," he says as he "pops a section of a Ho-Ho into his mouth; cream filling squirts out onto his lips."

But when a bomb threat gives him a day off work, it throws him into severe anxiety. Jim Train is as uncomfortable relaxing in his own home as a newly landed Martian might be. He resolves to go to the office tomorrow, even if work is canceled, "and throw himself on the mercy."

"Yours Truly," "Esther in the Night" and "The I of It" are three brief, intense stories told in the first person from three painful perspectives: a girl writing herself love letters, the mother of a comatose boy, and a dying gay man. They are each vivid and disturbing, lending the collection substance with their bleakness.

In contrast, the final story, "A Real Doll," is wickedly funny. A boy falls in love with his sister's Barbie doll. Barbie talks in a squeak as she discusses her relationship with the Ken doll. "I'm like, Ken we're friends, okay, that's it. I mean, have you ever noticed, he has molded plastic hair. His head and his hair are all one piece. I can't go out with a guy like that." It seems that hair isn't the only thing Ken lacks.

One caveat: These stories aren't for the easily offended. Otherwise they're original and stiletto sharp.

The reviewer is a Washington writer.

 

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