May We Be Forgiven

Story of suburbia is sour and sweet

Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times /

“May We Be Forgiven” by A.M. Homes (Viking, $27.95)

“May We Be Forgiven” begins at a Thanksgiving celebration in an affluent New York City commuter community. It’s Cheever country with a black comedy upgrade.

All this happens within the first 15 pages: Successful television executive George gets into a car accident, killing two parents and leaving their son an orphan. While George is away under observation, his brother Harry consoles Jane, his sister-in-law; before you know it, they’re sleeping together. When George returns home to find the two of them in bed together, he bashes Jane’s head in with a bedside lamp.

With Jane comatose in the hospital and George locked up, Harry moves into their house to hold things together. His niece and nephew, 11-year-old Ashley and 12-year-old Nate, come home from their boarding schools to sit with their doomed mother.

A.M. Homes has specialized in discomfiting visions of American suburbia: “The End of Alice” paired a willing coed with an imprisoned pedophile; “The Safety of Objects,” which was made into a film, included stories of erotic fascination with a child’s doll and a crack-smoking yuppie couple. Homes’ work is literary and prickly, featuring emotionally distant characters like Harry.

He moves through it all in a daze. “I feel like I’ve fallen into a space between spaces, like I don’t really exist — I’m always out of context,” he explains. His brother calls him a moron; one woman he’s sleeping with calls him “charmingly out of it.”

Bobbing along the bottom edge of middle-class respectability, Harry is a university lecturer, but he hasn’t got tenure. He’s been working on a book, but it’s an unfinished behemoth on the unbeloved Richard M. Nixon. He’s not stupid, like Chance in “Being There,” but the characters have a similarly angular, opaque take on the world. Often the book’s humor comes from Harry’s disconnected point of view — he’s not unkind, he’s just kind of alien.

The story is so fast-moving and pushes its characters to such extremes that it quickly moves into a zone that’s a farcical hyper-realism. Harry’s assignations lead to a kidnapping, a physical collapse and a suburban swingers’ party at a laser-tag emporium. George is sent to an experimental treatment program that’s something out of science fiction, there is a drastic federal intervention, and a Nixon subplot seems to point to — what else? — conspiracy.

That might be enough for another writer, but Homes takes the story even further. She crams a tremendous amount of ambition into the almost 500 pages of “May We Be Forgiven,” with its dark humor, its careening plot, its sex-strewn suburb and a massive cast of memorable characters that includes grandparents, lawyers, deli owners, secretaries, an aunt, a gay son, a shrink, an academic, one Nixon family member and the leader of an African village.

Its riskiest content, however, is something different: sentiment. This is a Tin Man story, in which the zoned-out Harry slowly grows a heart.

It happens through his caretaking, which is pretty awful at first. He manages to minimally tend to his brother’s house and the family pets, but he raids the medicine cabinet, ignores messages from servicepeople and doesn’t realize that when he takes the dog for walks, he’s dragging it through an invisible fence, giving it a shock.

Once his heart starts to warm, it’s like Harry can’t stop himself. The last third of the book is sweet, filled with more than one family outing that’s described as “magical.” There is something affirming about it.

But “May We Be Forgiven” has me wondering where I stand. I want this novel to be just a little more perfect.

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