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May We Be Forgiven

AM Homes' new book May We Be Forgiven brutally exposes the face of contemporary American culture

May We Be Forgiven by American writer AM Homes is one of the strangest, most gripping and satisfyingly ugly books I’ve read in a long time. It starts – and I don’t think this is giving too much away – with the sort of horrific cataclysm most novelists aspire to finish with, when drippy academic Harry – he is writing a book on Nixon that he is convinced no one will ever want to read – is attracted to his brother’s wife.

They start an affair while said brother, George, is arrested and placed in a mental institution after an apparent road rage incident during which he rams into another car, killing a couple and nearly killing their son.

But George comes home, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. He discovers brother and wife in bed together and brutally, horrifically proceeds to murder his spouse and mother of his two children by smashing her head in with a heavy lamp.

Somehow, incredibly, life goes on. There’s the police to deal with, a funeral, George’s kids, pets, legal stuff. Through it all Harry finds himself cut adrift.

His wife, disgusted by his adultery, throws him out. He loses his job teaching history because, his boss explains, the college wants history to “look forward more” (Homes has a good eye for fashionable anti-thought). And so, while George spends his time with doctors and lawyers, Harry moves into his brother’s comfortable suburban home and takes over his life, stepping into his expensive suede loafers.

“George is a bully in a very classic kind of a way,” Homes explains of the monster who underpins the action in this novel. “He gets what he wants by bullying. Harry is not that clever, not a very manipulative guy.

"I keep describing it to people as a mid-life coming-of-age story because, by circumstances beyond his control, Harry has to become a grown-up in a way he never had before. The question was whether he was going to rise to it or not.”

Those familiar with Homes’ previous bestseller, This Book Will Save Your Life (a Richard and Judy pick in 2007), will recognise the author’s appetite for a dysfunctional family, and also Harry’s ‘frozen’ state of narcissism. Here Homes is creating a sort of modern Cain and Abel, an analysis of the brother relationship.

But George is also a TV executive – and wired into popular culture. “There are a lot of people whose focus is all about themselves,” Homes says. “If one was to be… moralistic… if you think about what you can do for other people, then certainly the quality of your life improves.

“American mainstream culture is not very self-reflexive at all. It is not thinking in any way about bigger pictures or bigger ideas. It is [about] instant gratification and what more can I get for myself today, whether it’s what gadget, what toy, food, drink, sex, money. It is as though people are running through a scavenger hunt and just grabbing and grabbing…”

This impression of contemporary life drove Homes to portray what at first glance appears to be some extreme behaviour. But which in fact, she argues, is now comparatively normal. As Harry struggles to cope with everything that has happened, he deals with it partly by indulging in a series of casual sexual encounters, arranged at the click of a mouse via the internet.

“Friends of mine reading the book were horrified,” Homes recalls. “They asked me, 'Do you really think people behave that way?' I thought, absolutely. I don’t think it is uncommon at all.”

She mentions a smartphone app, Grindr, particularly popular in the US, which allows gay men to hook up, via GPS positioning, with “other guys looking for sex”. “It is so much a part of our lives right now I thought it important to find illustration of it,” she says.