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May We Be Forgiven

By John Freeman

A.M. Homes 'May We Be Forgiven' is a tender, funny book about the horrors of aging parents

About the suburbs, John Cheever once wrote: "There is some longing here, some real longing, for a more tempestuous, more genuine atmosphere.

"What has gone wrong, that we should all seem to be made of paper and straw?"

Book by book, A.M. Homes, 50, has updated this question about the suburbs more excitingly than any American novelist. From her 1989 debut, "Jack," about a gay teen's coming of age, to the harrowing thriller, "The End of Alice," which revolved around a convicted child molester, Homes' suburbs are Gothic and violent and punctured by desire.

"May We Be Forgiven," her latest novel, is an apotheosis of these explorations. It is set into motion by a murder and its aftermath; and it is a book about the horrors of aging parents. 

That such a story can be at once tender and uproariously funny is a marvel, and entirely due to Homes' fabulously confused narrator, Harold Silver: 48, failed Nixon scholar, brother to the aggressively successful television executive, George Silver.

As the book opens, George kills a woman in a car crash. While George is sequestered at a mental hospital (he has pleaded insanity), Harold begins a hideously ill-advised affair with his brother's wife. When George finds out, he commits yet another crime. Thus begins this book's hopscotch through a series of institutions.

From George's high-end celebrity retreat to the nursing home where the elder Silvers abide, they are surreal, sad places. Homes paints a world so scrambled that intimacy is attached to therapists, teachers and professional helpers, and family are treated like strangers. Everyone is on medication.

In the wake of George's volcanic temper, Harold steps awkwardly into his brother's Westchester county life and attempts to provide his niece and nephew some kind of order. A childless husband to a workaholic, he's not terribly well suited to the task, but guilt compels him.

"May We Be Forgiven" charts Harold's evolution from emotional iceberg to struggling parent. There are some hilarious moments along the way, such as when Harold -- who is squeamish to begin with -- talks his niece through her first menstruation over the telephone.

Homes has clearly spent some time with adolescents, as Harold's niece and nephew are alternately knowing and vulnerable. Harold, desperate for companionship, begins several affairs online.

"We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts," he muses, after a local girl goes missing, "and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version."

Eventually, "May We Be Forgiven" becomes properly moving. Once Harold starts giving, he discovers, he can't stop. He takes in a motherless boy; he looks after a woman's parents after she cruelly abandons them.

Family isn't just who we're born to; it's who we claim. In her stylistically daring memoir, "The Mistress's Daughter," A.M. Homes tells how this lesson threaded her own life.

Harold Silver also absorbs this wisdom, taking it on the chin more than once. It is one of the strangest, most miraculous journeys in recent fiction, not unlike a man swimming home to his lonely house, one swimming pool at a time: It is an act of desperation turned into one of grace.

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