The Unfolding by AM Homes: it’s an Obama drama
A madcap satire about where America’s present troubles began
By Johanna Thomas-Corr
What is the man in the middle of America thinking tonight?” asks the Big Guy, the hero of AM Homes’s The Unfolding, as he gathers together disgruntled allies in the aftermath of a presidential election result that has destroyed his faith in his country. “I bet he’s scared shitless. He’s losing his footing, the factory is closing, his job is gone, his pension isn’t what he thought it would be, people coming into the country illegally are taking what he thinks should be his. And his wife is haranguing him: ‘Why aren’t you doing more?’ It’s a wonder he’s not killing himself, or everyone else.”
The year is 2008. The next occupant of the White House will be Barack Obama. The Big Guy and members of his “good fortune club” of rich white Republicans are just as bamboozled by their loss as progressives would be in 2016.
Only they have a little more strategic resolve.
Gathering at the Big Guy’s Palm Springs vacation home, they settle on a plan to win back the ordinary Joe — or rather, to get Joe to win back the US for them. “If Joe doesn’t know the difference between number one and number two, that’s fine — we just have to tell him what to think. We remind him that in the US democracy is capitalism, guns, and lower taxes.” The plan? To incite domestic disturbances that will turn the US into an economic and spiritual “dead zone”, eventually allowing them to “reclaim” the nation.
The Unfolding is Homes’s first novel since her Women’s prizewinning May We Be Forgiven (2012), a surreal, freewheeling melodrama that doubled as a deconstruction of the American dream: John Cheever by way of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Homes specialises in the insecurities, deceits and emotional desolation of America’s elite, with a particular interest in affluent older males in the aftermath of cataclysmic events. That she dressed up as Willy Loman for Halloween when she was ten says a lot about her humour.
Now she has homed in on the existential grumbles of affluent Republicans. Donald Trump does not feature here (the novel is restricted to the few weeks between Obama’s election and inauguration) but the Big Guy does bear a few similarities with David and/or Charles Koch, the Republican mega-donors who have spent much of their inherited billions on their organisation Americans for Prosperity.
The Big Guy’s wealth is also inherited: his father exploited his wife’s father’s gas fields and then made even more money profiting on national crises.
But while another novelist might have turned Republican plotters into monsters, Homes treats them as the tragic cast of an Arthur Miller play. In one hilarious scene, she describes her chief protagonist locked up in his “war room”, re-enacting D-Day on a pool table and Vietnam on a ping-pong table.
Readers familiar with Homes will anticipate madcap events but she subverts our expectations by becoming, if anything, more sentimental.
The Big Guy sees that he has “lost sight of everything”, including his naive daughter, Meghan, and his alcoholic wife, Charlotte, who tries to drown herself after realising she has spent a quarter of a century living in her husband’s shadow.
But while Homes nails her characters’ unease, she fails to give us the full-bodied state-of-the-nation novel she hints at. The story fizzles out.
In the past, she has pushed anxieties about family, success and consumerism, presenting an oversaturated version of the real world. She wouldn’t be the first satirist to be outpaced by real-life dysfunction, but maybe that’s her point.