Well Read: Helen Brown speaks to AM Homes about her latest book
By Helen Brown
"You wanna hear a billionaire joke?” asks AM Homes. “So, a bunch of people are sitting around a campfire and they’re talking about what they’d do if they won a million dollars on the lottery. One guy’s like: ‘I’d buy my mum a house.’ A woman says: ‘I’d pay off all my educational debt.’ Another person imagines how they’d invest the money to use in retirement. Then they get to the billionaire and he says: ‘I’d f***ing kill myself if I only had a million dollars.’”
Homes’ loose, deep laughter subsides into a shrug and a shake of the head. “Only a million dollars. Huh. Whewph.” The antihero of her muscular, noirish eighth novel, The Unfolding, is probably a billionaire, although readers are never entirely sure of his net worth. Referred to only as The Big Guy, he moves frictionlessly between luxury hotels and fully-staffed homes around the US. There are unseen drivers to shuttle him between air-conditioned rooms and waiters to pour drinks into crystal tumblers.
“He swims in every town,” writes Homes. “He believes something is learned by taking the local waters. This was something he did as a boy with his father. Wherever they travelled, they took the waters; his father also took the liquor and the ladies. If there was a city with notable waters but he had no business there, his father started one. Hot Springs, Arkansas. Sharon Springs, New York, which he liked because that was where the Vanderbilts went.”
We meet The Big Guy at a bar in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008. He’s drowning his sorrows as he realises Barack Obama is about to win the presidential election, initiating a culture change that threatens the supremacy of wealthy old white men like him. “This is a moment when you have to be ready to take action,” he slurs. He scribbles on a napkin, planning something big: “a forced correction”.
Within a few chapters he’s assembled some like-minded pals and they’re working on a strategy to convince Average Joe Americans that it’s in their interest to keep all the Big Guys in power. “We remind him that in America democracy is capitalism, guns and lower taxes,” says the Big Guy. “Because Joe is the one who is going to get the work done. This isn’t about money; it’s about power.” A wily collaborator suggests a spin. “Don’t say power, say freedom.”
The character isn’t Donald Trump. He’s smarter and seems to love his family more than the 45th President. But his agenda is the same. And I’m talking to Homes, via video link, in the week that the January 6 committee holds its eighth and final – for now, at least – public hearing into the Capitol Insurrection. Republican former vice president Dick Cheney has called out Trump for doing exactly what her character does, “preying on the patriotism” of average Americans and turning it into “a weapon against our Capitol and our Constitution.”
Homes rolls her eyes when I mention Trump and exhales. Her history of tackling controversial issues (including paedophilia and child murder in The End of Alice, 1996), taking on traditionally male subject matter (2012’s Baileys Prize winning May We Be Forgiven was about a professor of “Nixonology”) and guarding her privacy has given her a reputation for being an intimidating interviewee. But she’s warm, funny and engagingly opinionated. “I got that image for being scary,” she shrugs. “And I mean, I’m the least scary person, right?”
Born in Washington DC in 1961, her childhood was steeped in politics. “My parents didn’t work in the government,” she says. “But friends had parents who did. I grew up in the knowledge that, once you reached a certain level of government job, you could ask to borrow paintings from the National Gallery of Art for your office. Y’know? ‘I’d just like that Edward Hopper over there by my desk.’ Oh, OK, then…”
Homes was a political kid. She “did a lot of rallies” with “much older people with names like Wave and Crash”. Somehow she ended up in charge of security, meeting Capitol officials on behalf of the protest group while still at high school. “My parents would drive me,” she recalls. “We would have to meet with the Park Police, the Capitol Police and the Washington DC police. We would get a list of ten people who could use the bathroom in the US Capitol. It’d be, like: Jane Fonda, Jerry Brown and Joni Mitchell.” She laughs. “And I would add my name to that list.”
These experiences made her realise that “there are worlds and kinds of access that are not visible on the surface.” And also “that access is also not actually that hard to come by. It’s really not that hard to get through the membrane between the insiders and outsiders. It was all very rinky-dink, very small town. I don’t think I realised how small it was until I was fourteen, and I saw a girl crying at summer camp because Nixon had resigned. I don’t think it had properly occurred to me until then that the people in Washington ran an entire country. It seemed so implausible. I mean, I used to drive my mum’s Volvo up to the Capitol monument, aged seventeen. Totally off-roading”
Homes honed her craft at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She gravitated to the work of the “Great American Novelists”. So all white men? “Yeah, it was John Cheever, Richard Yates, Norman Mailer…” she grins. “Then increasingly there’s been Marilynne Robinson, Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. Previously, ‘great’ women’s fiction had been more interior. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Tillie Olsen’s [short story] I stand here Ironing.” Homes notes that while the male authors of America’s twentieth century made their names as virile young men, the women “were older before they were acknowledged. They wrote better with experience, too.”
This awareness made the young Homes resistant to the idea of being pigeonholed as a “woman writer”. I tell her that my young kids are wise to this idea. My footballing daughter has no truck with the concept of “women’s football” and my on-side son will riff on how she also does “women’s breathing”. She smiles wide. “That’s so great. When I was younger I didn’t want to have that discussion. I didn’t want to believe that [misogyny] was true. And now I know it’s inescapably true. Women don’t write the Great American Novel.”
I ask if the moniker “AM” was an attempt to avoid being gendered – writers ducked pigeonholing with initials for centuries before the new pronouns existed – and she says: “I am ‘AM’. That is what I’m called. It’s about claiming my right to exist. Literally, ‘I AM’. I am going to write more about that because, for so many years, people asked: ‘what is that about? What are you hiding?’ I’m like, huh? It’s me. It’s what I’m called by my friends, family and students.”
She pauses. Then adds: “I sort of feel an absence of identity too. In that absence I’m able to travel and take on all kinds of different points of view really easily. I find it much harder to write about myself because I don’t know who that is.”
Homes is adopted. I wonder if this is part of the issue. She says: “I don’t know how much of my lack of identity is related to being adopted – as the story of my adoption also dovetails with having come into a family where a child had recently died – so there is a ghost. I do feel that the incredible turmoil in the world – politics, climate, pandemic, over the last few years has disrupted my sense of self, my understanding and experience of what it means to be American and my concept of the future of both the country and the world. So I think there is a global existential crisis as well. Now it feels that everybody is having an identity crisis.”
The one part of Homes’ identity that seems stable is her national identity. “Yeah, 100%,” she says. “For better and for worse I am a very American writer. It’s very intentional. I’m an anthropologist but from the inside. This book is filled with so much peculiar history.” The Unfolding has fun unspooling mythic ideas of American history. She reduces the grassy knoll where Kennedy was assassinated to a disappointing bump in the ground and Mount Rushmore to a punchline. “I love research,” she says. “Something that I didn’t know until I wrote this book was that George Washington was originally a British soldier, a disgruntled employee. It turned out that the soldiers coming from England were being paid more than those already in the US and he thought: that’s not OK!” So people’s actual motives were very different to the retrospective projection? “Exactly.”
Her research involved reading “a million books about political history. I got very interested in the Eisenhower administration because that was when the rise of military industrial complex began. That’s when the big money started to come in, along with the idea that the military is generating all the jobs. I was interested in everything from the continuity of government in the event of nuclear war to what kind of candy is made in Chicago. I’m interested in advertising. Those algorithms we talk about. The things we don’t see. We are being delivered what we want. And what we’ve already eaten. It narrows our vision enormously.”
Much of this American history is processed in The Unfolding by The Big Guy’s daughter, Meghan. Her clever, skinny mother has checked out (with drugs and alcohol) leaving her to make sense of the world with only her father’s self-aggrandising world view for guidance. At eighteen she realises she feels as little about the Big American Events as she did about losing her virginity or voting for the first time: it’s all pretty mundane stuff, in the hands of fallible folk.
Work on the novel began before Trump was elected. But his shadow falls throughout. Homes says: “One of my editors told me: ‘I’m confused because The Big Guy and his friends keep talking about how they want to defend democracy’. I said: ‘Yeah, they do. The problem is that word now means different things to different people. That’s super confusing. We can have people who seem well-intentioned until we realise their motivation.’”
This is what makes The Big Guy so compelling. He gaslights himself as he goes. Along with the reader. Homes nods. “I wanted to look at the muscularity of male ego but also write about the women who’ve been in some ways crippled by it. And his realisation that he’s an asshole. It may be that he can’t adjust. But he does begin to realise: ‘Oh my god, these are people that I care about deeply. And I have not done well by them.’”
Homes tells me she’s “an optimist by nature”, so we should find it “terrifying” that even she is scared about America’s future. She shrugs for a final time and then knuckles down seriously to face her camera, as if we’re at a summit where this interview could really solve things. “I’m interested to see if there’s a graceful way out of this. If the Republican party wanted a way out then I think they could find a way out. But what they appear to want is power at any cost. That seems to be where they are now. It’s very, very scary.”
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail