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May We Be Forgiven

If this is suburban life, God help America

By Eileen Battersby

Comic Panache is the saving of many a dire situation, and the serious novelist who makes the reader smile, never mind laugh out loud, is a saviour as much as an artist and truth-teller. The American writer AM Homes has a feel for the comedic that is as well developed as her chillingly direct grasp of the many horrors that stalk the living and the dead.

For too long revered by a minority readership, she has now won a wide audience with a state-of-the-nation – no, make that state-of-the-suburbs – narrative that is immensely likeable and sustained throughout by a vividly described plot heaving with believable grotesques.

It is almost as good as it could have been. It is a bit overcooked in places, because Homes, in common with her characters, tends to push each gag and every observation to its limit. Exasperation is her medium, and it carries risks, particularly that of overkill as the one-liners mount up and several of the characters appear not to look much beyond the next joke. And too much happens in this sprawling novel. The most vital events occur in the opening 15 or so pages, which may be seen as a flaw considering that the narrative races on at a breakneck pace for almost 500 more, none of it regaining the early momentum.

The story is about two brothers. George Silver is a wealthy TV executive with a collection of awards, a fine house and a perfect homemaker wife who is rigid with despair. George has a vile temper. He is also taller than his slightly older brother, Harry, a low-powered academic whose life is on hold through his not having completed his book about the disgraced former US president Richard Nixon. Harry is married, but his wife is a career woman content with a functional apartment. They have no children.

It all begins at Thanksgiving. Harry sets the scene as he recalls watching his brother. “He was at the head of the big table, picking turkey out of his teeth, talking about himself . . . With every trip back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, I hated him more . . . And then, despite what I repeatedly tried to tell him about how horrible he was, he acted as though he believed he was a gift of the gods.”

There is a John Cheever-like eloquence about Harry’s introductory comments. It could be argued that May We Be Forgiven is an extravagant homage to Cheever’s brilliant story Goodbye, My Brother (1951). Amy Homes, bold and daring as always, certainly continues to defer to the master (of whom there is even a sighting).

Her approach is strongly visual, as is to be expected from a novelist and storyteller also involved in television scriptwriting. Snappy dialogue is among her many talents, and Homes’s style comes across as far less laboured than that of Jonathan Franzen. The ease with which Homes recasts biblical themes of sibling dislike, vengeance and moral awakening is impressive. For all the humour, this is a dark tale. Jane, George’s wife, is dead within pages, yet it is her plaintive request to Harry to let her “have a little pleasure, a little something that’s just for myself” that reverberates throughout the book. It is an extraordinary declaration, both defiant and heart-rending. Harry, a most sympathetic narrator for whom the story represents a midlife crisis as well as a belated coming of age, is an Everyman, passively hovering in the wings of existence.

George is out of control; he doesn’t even heed red lights. After a road crash in which he leaves a couple dead and a boy orphaned, he then commits a horrific act that changes everything. Harry is forced into a level of activity that sees him assume responsibility for his brother’s pets as well as for his children. Homes calls upon the lost, the demented and the angry as well as the merely bored – such as a happily married woman who seeks hobby sex. Harry is dismissed by his outraged wife in the early stages of the upheaval and then begins to attract various marauding females. Several of these interludes quickly collapse, yet they serve as structural devices.

Most of the adults seem unhinged. While the medical and legal professionals emerge as caricatures, Homes presents the children, particularly George’s son, Nate, as the presiding, and prevailing, moral centre. This boy, who loved his dead mother and fears his father, is a touching if not entirely convincing creation. Homes plays dangerously with the subject of child sexual abuse and is guilty of handling it here in way that is surprisingly lazy as well as tasteless.

Her Jewish jokes work, and the gags featuring panic attacks and depression are entertaining, but Homes has perhaps too much cheap fun with dementia, mental illness, electroshock therapy and so on. Harry decides to visit his mother in the nursing home. Her bed is empty, but her room-mate is excited by the visit. “I’m Harry. I’m here for your neighbour. I’m her son.” The old lady asks, “How do you know?” To which Harry replies, “Because she was in the house when I was growing up.” He then asks, “What’s your name?” The old lady answers, “I don’t know. What’s in a name?” Elsewhere another elderly woman, when asked how long she has been married, replies, “Since the beginning of time.”

Harry attends his nephew’s winter weekend, filling the role of the boy’s father. All of the hotels are full, so he rents a child’s bedroom in a BB. He thinks, “In this tiny bed, this tiny room, I have a moment of clarity. I am a grown man who has hardly grown. I am like Oskar in The Tin Drum, refusing to grow.”

By this stage Harry has already experienced a crying attack in a park (not to mention a stroke), has lost his job, has bumped into Don DeLillo and has witnessed a murder.

May We Be Forgiven is extreme on many levels. Homes has confidently taken a story and stretched it into a funny, fast-moving, picaresque, baggy satire that reinvents itself a few times before subsiding into a feelgood glow that nevertheless intones not so much God bless as God help America.