'Forgiven,' sour and sweet in suburbia
“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.
As anyone might, Harry cleans up after the family dog and feeds the cat. As a character in an A.M. Homes story, he uses his brother's computer and starts using online personals for daily hook-ups with bored housewives.
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.
He gradually gets better and expands his care to George's children, Nate and Ashley. At their urging, he even reaches out to the boy orphaned by George's car accident, a chubby kid staying with a beleaguered aunt and uncle. Enabled by George's ample financial portfolio, they can take trips together, which seems to benefit everyone.
After his heart starts to warm, it's like Harry can't stop himself. He befriends a motley assortment, including incontinent, half-demented oldsters, the proprietors of a local shop and one of his hook-ups, whom he calls his “sex-tress.”
The multicultural family he constructs is far more interconnected than the cold one he was born into; it can exist only because Harry has become a man who is open and attentive.
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, seeing Harry and the people around him changed for the better.
The difficulty is that I'm not sure that people who read through George's homicidal head-bashing and Harry's mindless sexcapades will appreciate the halcyon finish. Or, that those who would embrace the Disney-like end of the book will stomach the outsized exploits at the start. It may be hard to find readers who can take joy from both.
Part of this problem may come from the way the resolution is imagined. While the early parts of the book ratchet up the extreme weirdness, the latter seem tied to cliches. Nurturing is good; family adventures are bonding; and in a life-affirming trip to an African nation, Harry encounters a wise medicine man.
Among book critics, the question of ambition and execution sometimes crops up: Which is better, a perfect novel or an imperfect one that takes big risks? The consensus is that risks and the inevitable failures that come with them create a more interesting read than a polished novel with no loose ends.
“May We Be Forgiven” has me wondering where I stand. Frustrated by the sugary end grafted onto the raucously sour beginning, I want this novel to be just a little more perfect.
Carolyn Kellogg is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.