Skip to content

Music For Torching

Burning Down the House

By Cathleen Medwick

Not many writers make a virtue of depravity. A.M. Homes does so repeatedly, in novels and stories that explore—even seem to celebrate—the most perverse and violent impulses of the human heart. "A Real Doll," her 1990 short story about a teenage boy's sexual encounters with his sister's Barbie Doll, was a shocker; by the time she published The End of Alice, her 1996 novel about a sexual predator with a taste for young girls, Homes had become a literary bete noire. Outraged critics blasted her as a Nabokov wanna-be, a purveyor of high-end smut. Her brash new novel, Music for Torching (Rob Weisbach Books), is proof that Homes hasn't lost her nerve; no doubt, she's going to need it.

This is a story of Elaine and Paul Weiss, an unhappy suburban couple (but that's redundant—in Homes's fiction, all suburban couples are unhappy) from a kempt but secretly smarmy neighborhood in Cheever country: that is, slightly north of New York City. The place is infested with miserable, horny, unfaithful men, their discontented, erotically challenged wives, their emotionally and/or sexually endangered children, and their lascivious neighbors, who (if nothing else) are good for mid-afternoon trysts behind the sofa. These tribal rites occur in a time warp: Oddly, hot dogs and gin endure in this modern era of skinless chicken and white wine, so does pink shag carpeting. Suburban angst, too, is timeless—Elaine hates her domestic drudgery, her nasty and dependent relationship with her husband, and the very house where the two of them claw at each other's fragile psyches. Their sudden, impulsive act—knocking over the barbecue grill and setting fire to their house—leads to more perverse behavior. Elaine is seduced by a kinky neighbor, while Paul succumbs to a mysterious urbanite identified only as "the date." These seductions, like the Weisses' almost continuous marital slugfests, take place in an environment where chaotic passions rule, and having a "normal" life is a pale, postcoital dream.

A.M. Homes is at her best when she pairs depravity with banality, or with cloying innocence: when Elaine and Paul (he wearing a filmy nightgown) sate themselves on the carpet of their neighbors' perfect little daughters' "vagina pink" bedroom, or when Elaine and her unlikely lover climax atop the clothes dryer, spurred on by Downy, Fantastik—"housewife homoerotica." Homes is less successful when she tries to be gentle. "None are what they seem," she writes, uncharacteristically, of the diners at a late-afternoon barbecue, "none are what you'd want them to be. They all are both more or less—deeply human." That may be true, but it isn't hardly reassuring in a world where even love is a lethal weapon. The unspeakably horrifying last pages of Music for Torching are not for delicate constitutions. When this author serves up humanity, it is at the end of a long, sharp knife.