May We Be Forgiven
Reviewed by Peter Craven
There's no denying that A.M. Homes has a huge gift. She can conjure up a cast of characters that are vividly believable and alive. And she can also invoke a world of hilarious comedy out of what seem to be the worst things in the world. She is wonderful at the gleaming and fearful surface of people, she's terrific at creating a sense of community, if there's something that lets her down it's the plot that is peopled by these human marvels and monsters.
She can certainly get things going. A historian devoted to Richard Nixon picks up a sexual gleam in his sister-in-law's eye at Thanksgiving. Months later her thug of a husband, his brother (the overlord of a TV network) kills a couple in a car accident as a consequence of culpable drunk driving. Hero goes to comfort wife and husband-brother (who has been hospitalised) returns to wreak terrible revenge.
It's a hell of a hook and the fact that A.M. Homes has the miraculous gift of making every human catastrophe, great and small, the occasion for a sort of sweepingly intense vision of human absurdity, so that we laugh aloud, is an extraordinary bonus.
We see this guy who adores Nixon being spurned by the head of his department and as he's dealing with a Woody Allenish psychiatrist, bastardly lawyers and bounding dogs.
When he has to look after his brother's teenage kids, the depiction has great freshness and poignancy. Only A.M. Homes would represent the predicament of a childless middle-aged man trying to explain on the phone to a girl at boarding school with her first period how to get a tampon in the right place.
She's not the only person capable of seeing the comic potential of internet sex but - you can almost hear it coming - our protagonist is cured of the habit when, with nothing but normal erotic intentions towards their mother, he finds himself handcuffed by two quite young kids.
What makes A.M. Homes different is high moral intensity: what she is after is the truth, which is why she can enact her comic tableaux on the edge of any existential precipice in sight.
The difficulty - to the extent that there is one with a writer of such sizzle and sparkle - is that her lavish inventiveness is not matched by her overall sense of design or her longer narrative drive.
She is supremely artful at what happens in the next 10 pages. She has perfect pitch in her dialogue and she is very adept at shaping a small-scale action and, in that sense, a bit like the TV soapmeisters. After a while, though, we notice that we're feeling the same kind of amusement, the same kind of poignancy, not quite to formula but according to a pattern.
And if we roll up our sleeves and start to read skimmingly for structure, the centre ceases to hold. One odd consequence of this is that A.M. Homes, this highbrow dynamo of a writer with a very broad general appeal, with a real New York meets Hollywood lilt, is oddly static when it comes to character - a little bit, in this respect, like a great popular writer in the Larry McMurtry mode, in which style and finely calibrated sentiment create a wonderful simulacrum of reality.
You could do worse though. Here is a novelist who can sing, who can swagger and move you to laugh at the tears in things. Does it matter that she's a bit of a sentimentalist with a diminished sense of design? It matters if you see her as a potential contemporary American Dostoyevsky.
In the meantime, there's something very attractive about her communitarianism and her deep feeling for the beauty and poignancy of kids and pets.
Reviewed by Peter Craven