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May We Be Forgiven

AM Homes's 'May We be Forgiven' is a gloriously eccentric novel of the tarnished American dream

By Tim Auld

It’s in keeping with AM Homes’s style that she should start with a punch. The narrator Harry’s brother George ploughs into a car, killing a mother and father and orphaning a child. Soon after, George, escaped from a psychiatric unit, finds Harry in flagrante with his wife. George bludgeons her to death, and the book feels like it’s over before it began.

Homes has never pulled her punches. Her 1997 novel, The End of Alice, was narrated by a convicted paedophile and was vilified on the one hand as “revolting trash” and hailed on the other as a modern masterpiece. Banal, it is fair to say, Homes has never been.

George’s meltdown sends his brother’s life into freefall. Harry’s wife leaves him. He loses his job as a Nixon scholar. He becomes addicted to internet hookups. Overdosing on Viagra, he has a stroke, all the while charting his suburban depletion with un-self-pitying candour worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s cipher-like heroes.

However, despite this Updike/Roth-ean set up, it’s a curiously uplifting story. As in her previous novel, This Book Will Save Your Life, Homes creates in Harry a slow-burn hero, as Shakespeare said of Henry V, blessed with the gift of “redeeming time when men least think [he] will”.

Homes was herself adopted and experienced vexed reconciliations with her birth parents. It’s no surprise she sees little joy in the idea of the nuclear family. Here, from within the tarnished walls of George’s house, Harry builds an alternative community of ageing eccentrics and lost souls, people he meets on a picaresque traipse through suburban America. Most touching is the love which flourishes between him and his bereaved niece and nephew.

Harry’s journey is at times so unlikely and surreal – not least a section with George in a prisoner programme resembling The Hunger Games – that the reader will greet the line, “And then the real craziness starts”, with but 50 pages to go, with a winded guffaw.

Being a clever American novel, this is also a hand-wringing examination of the American dream – here with Nixon and the legacy of his corruption cast as a symbol of the nation’s current dark night of the soul. The Nixon material will resonate more with American readers, but wherever you live, Homes’s sharp, detailed prose will teem with gloriously free, un-airbrushed life.

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