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May We Be Forgiven

Man of the House

By Garth Risk Hallberg

For a while there, in the middle of the last century, New York’s northern suburbs were something like the literary capital of the country. The novels of Richard Yates and the stories of John Cheever reimagined Westchester County as a mythic landscape to rival Yoknapatawpha, and the rider of the Metro-North as a prism for American yearning and unease. Then the ’60s came along and scrambled the cultural map. But the Westchester mystique persists, in “Mad Men” and men’s wear — and in much of A. M. Homes’s best fiction.

Homes’s 1999 novel “Music for Torching” used weekday commutes and weekend barbecues as foils for all manner of private compulsion. It was a sequel of sorts to her breakout collection, “The Safety of Objects,” wherein Cheever’s “Sorrows of Gin” became the sorrows of the crack pipe. If, more recently, Homes has drifted toward the West Coast, her new novel, “May We Be Forgiven,” returns to Cheeverville with a vengeance. The mundane ripens into elegy; late afternoon is “the slow part of the day, when everything seems to hang unfinished in midair, until cocktails can be poured.” At one point we even glimpse “the ghost of John Cheever going out for a ride.” But another Westchester luminary is equally on Homes’s mind. He pops up early, outside a Starbucks — a man who “looks familiar, a cross between a guy who might change your flat and Clint Eastwood.” It is, the narrator realizes, Don DeLillo.

It’s possible to read too much into these cameos. “May We Be Forgiven” is nothing if not capacious, and it also alludes to the literary theorist Gayatri Spivak and, via “the firm of Herzog, Henderson & March,” Saul Bellow. Still, as physical presences in the text, DeLillo and Cheever stand out. And where Homes’s early work traded on the dissonance between the former’s Kulturkritik and the latter’s introspection, “May We Be Forgiven” fumbles toward harmony.

The narrator, Harry Silver, is a professor of “Nixonology” — a figurative cousin to Jack Gladney, the “Hitler studies” scholar in DeLillo’s “White Noise.” In silent musings and classroom lectures, Harry envisions Nixon as a sort of world-­historical father figure. Mostly, though, he’s preoccupied with more literal kinds of kinship. As the novel opens, he’s stuck in a loveless marriage. His Manhattan apartment building is “ugly,” his teaching gig tenuous. His brother, George, meanwhile, is a high-powered TV executive with kids at fancy boarding schools and a phat manse in the burbs. More to the point, George has a temper. A car accident is about to leave him in a psych ward and throw his wife, Jane, into licentious proximity to Harry. In due course, George will escape his minders, catch Harry and Jane in bed, and bludgeon her to death with a lamp.

For many writers, this would be enough plot for an entire novel, but Homes dispatches with her big twists in the first 50 pages. Jane’s murder is less the central tragedy than a contrivance to transplant Harry into George’s ZIP code for the rest of the book. While his brother awaits trial, he is given charge of the dog, the kids, the empty house and the safe deposit box. “It’s like being indoctrinated into a secret society,” he thinks.

Such moments position Harry as a kind of native informant, through whom we might come to understand the folkways of the new suburban haute bourgeoisie. Rambling around George’s neighborhood, he catalogs instances of parental neglect and pill-popping and how “the perfectly trimmed grass . . . reeks of prosperity and the vigilant use of pest-control products. It’s midday, midweek, and apart from the fact that the plants are thriving, there are no other signs of life.” This is a nice observation, nicely put. More often, though, Harry’s field notes seem cribbed from old episodes of “Desperate Housewives.” Look: Viagra! Swinger laser tag! Extramarital sexting!

The novel fares no better when Harry turns inward. Its title comes from a Hebrew prayer of confession, and Harry periodically reproaches himself for Jane’s death: “I’m as much a murderer as my brother,” he laments, “no more, no less.” The guilt here feels forced, though, as their affair has been so hastily sketched. And as Homes prods Harry toward redemption, his inner life remains like one of those early synthesizers that are incapable of producing a chord. “I am sobbing, wailing, crying so deep, so hard, it is the cry of a lifetime,” he tells us at one point. At another: “For one shining moment I am HIGH!”

A protagonist cut off from credible connection with both society and himself poses a problem: Where will the dramatic friction come from? Homes can’t pull a Camus and have Harry go kill someone; George got there first. Her solution, in the book’s long second act, is to launch Harry into a series of encounters with oddball neighbors and people in parking lots, and to see what shakes out.

Homes is too talented for these improvisations not to generate some sparks. As episode yields to episode, Harry ends up caring not only for his niece and nephew, but also for a foster child, an elderly couple living nearby and a nympho-mistress-cum-sassy-bestie: a family of choice to replace the family of origin. Homes displays a genuine depth of feeling for the predicament of children and the elderly in a world where “Dad works all the time” and “Mom’s entirely electronic.” The old folks, in particular, have the surreal sweetness of “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero,” Homes’s fine short story about Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Still, both the plotting and the prose evince a degree of indifference toward the material. When Harry thinks, near the end of the book, “It seems pointless to go on for the sake of going on,” we can almost hear the writer speaking over his shoulder.

The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since “The Safety of Objects” was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: “Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.” Harry gets a visitor: “Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.”

Nor, as the latter passage illustrates, is compression anywhere evident. No event is too tedious to report, no dialogue too banal to reproduce verbatim. (“ ‘I’ll have the soup,’ he tells the waitress. ‘Cup or bowl?’ ‘Cup,’ he says. And what else? ‘A seltzer.’ ”) What might have been toothsomely mock epic, a Westchester “East of Eden,” reads instead like Andy Warhol’s diary: so many phone calls, so many meals, so many anecdotes about pets.

Style may be, as Truman Capote said, “the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,” but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?)

Or perhaps “irony” is the wrong word. Homes’s insights into suburban emptiness often hew close to sarcasm instead, playing things off their opposites. But there is another, deeper irony, as old as the novel itself, that challenges us to hold competing realities in mind at the same time. And that’s what “May We Be Forgiven,” to make sense of our schizoid age, needs more of. Not negation, but negative capability. Not either/or, but both/and.

To pair sociological sweep with psychological intimacy, as this book sets out to do, is a laudable ambition. It may even be where the vital center of American fiction is, circa 2012. But Homes hasn’t yet developed the formal vocabulary to reconcile her Cheever side and her DeLillo side. Instead, they end up licensing each other’s failures, canceling each other out. And so what might have been a stereoscopic view of The Way We Live Now ends as an ungainly portmanteau: a picaresque in which nothing much happens, a confession we can’t quite believe, a satire whose targets are already dead.

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