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Things You Should Know

Weird and Wonderful 

By Geoff Nicholson

Geoff Nicholson applauds an icon of the A-list avant-garde.

Among those thanked at the end of this collection of short stories are Bill Buford, former fiction editor of The New Yorker, super-agent Andrew Wylie, super-novelist Dave Eggers, the staff at Yaddo writers' colony, and "everyone at Chateau Marmont" in Hollywood. This may not quite tell us all there is to know about A.M. Homes, but it certainly confirms that she's A-list, an insider, a mainstream player.

Which makes you realize that the mainstream incorporates some very strange tributaries these days. The most jaw-dropping story is "Georgica," about a woman who distributes free condoms to her local lifeguards, then surreptitiously collects them after they have been used and tries (successfully) to impregnate herself. "The Whiz Kids" is the story of a young gay boy who becomes disenchanted with his lover after he sees him urinate on a girl who refused to have sex with him. 

Other stories are less fiercely sensational, though by no means comfortable reading. "Rockets Round the Moon" features a man who kills a boy in a road accident, then sets himself on fire as penance; "The Chinese Lesson" contains a Chinese-American woman who hates the Chinese part of herself; "Do Not Disturb" is about a doctor diagnosed with cancer who refuses to be brave or stoic, or even civil towards her husband. There are also a couple of stories that step into magic realism territory—shape-changing coyotes with the gift of speech, for instance—which, for my money work far less well. 

Yet, for all the edginess and even brutality of some of the content, the form of the stories remains oddly reassuring. With Homes there's a feeling of being in safe literary hands. 

She may take us to unsteady ground, but we know she isn't going to pull the rug from under us. She is an heir to Updike, Joan Didion, and Joyce Carol Oates, rather than Bret Easton Ellis or Dennis Cooper. 

Homes's characters are a gloriously unhappy bunch. They say things like, "I wish I were dead. I have tried to keep it a secret, but it leaks out," or "I think maybe I'm in the wrong place." They frequently get lost, both literally and metaphorically, in the world or in their own minds. This goes furthest in the very short title story, a narrative by someone who believes she was away from school on the day they handed out information sheets containing foolproof instructions for life. 

The stand-out, indeed knock-out, story is one of the longest, "The Former First Lady and the Football Hero." It describes the home life of Ronald and Nancy Reagan now that the tattered curtains of Alzheimer's disease have draped themselves around the former president. It would be very easy to get this wrong, to play it for cheap laughs, and the laughter is certainly there—but far from cheap. Ronald Reagan here lives in a state of tragic-comic disorientation, surrounded by semi-competent CIA men, wanting to elope with Margaret Thatcher, perceiving a face on television as "a strange man over there who keeps talking to me." The story forces you to admire Homes's cleverness, makes you laugh out loud, then finally breaks your heart. That's why she has and deserves her A-list status.