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Music For Torching

Burning Down the House

By David Gates

At one point in A.M. Homes's new novel, Music for Torching, suburban women take an ax to a dining-room table damaged in a house fire. "I could do this forever," one says. "Anything else need the old chop-chop?" She looks out the window, "I wonder if that tree out front is alive or dead. I wouldn't mind taking a crack at it." That small, weird moment suggests Homes's M.O. in this hellbound joyride of a book: take things too far, then a lot farther.

When we first meet her main characters, a middle-aged couple named Paul and Elaine, they're cleaning up after a dinner party; at the sink, he pulls down her pantyhose and she "accidentally" inflicts a shallow wound in his neck with a carving knife. Within 20 pages they've willfully set fire to their house by squirting it with charcoal lighter and tipping over the grill—an exhilarating bit of secular blasphemy. Later, as they copulate, she says,

"We're awful... We're worse than we thought we were, worse than anyone I've ever met." And then the book starts to get edgy. Homes's last novel, The End of Alice (1996), about a Westchester County, N.Y., serial killer and his pubescent victim, had a complex relationship to Nabokov's Lolita. Hommage or critique? Updating or oneupping? Music for Torching puts similar moves—with far more success—on John Cheever, who still holds the intellectual-property rights to literary Westchester. Homes's setting seems east of (and downmarket from) Cheever's "Shady Hill," but she gives us a roaming dog, a roving-eyed husband and a babysitter who seem to have mutated from prototypes in "The Country Husband," Homes's novel ends where that story begins, literally up in the air. (For Cheever, a DC-3; for Homes, a chopper.)

Homes shows none of Cheever's nuanced ambivalence about leafy, loony suburbia and the annoyingly provincial, thwartedly poetic souls who live there; for her it's a zoo. One kid, as a neighbor confides, "bit a teacher's fingers off, the index and-what's the longer one? the f-k-you finger. He bit them off and ate them... Imagine how Catherine and Hammy must feel." 

But the self-absorbed Paul and Elaine don't empathize; they feel little themselves but lust, rage and boredom; their cherished romantic memory is the time they smoked crack.

If Homes weren't so smart, this might be just a crash-and-burn caricature of suburban angst—with some brief, fortuitous topical relevance during the national shell shock over the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, but her people suffer in part because they know they've let themselves become caricatures. "If anyone knew us," Paul says, "they wouldn't like us." Homes uses misdirection to keep them—and the reader—worried about the wrong things: adultery, insurance scams, job crises. Something awful does happen, but the characters can't snap out of their own concerns to pay heed to the warning signs. And Homes contrives to implicate us in their blindness.

As Paul and Elaine torch their house, Homes torches a whole genteel tradition of suburban fiction—Cheever, Updike—in which some center of stability persists among the smug, the adulterous and the merely boring. Her Gothic-anomic suburbia is neither more nor less "true": fiction is fiction. But it's liberating to see the dead wood of unearned uplift get the old chop-chop. "Elaine doesn't want to celebrate women's lives," Homes writes. "She wants to smash her life, to pummel it into a powder." Rock-and-rollers have known for years that such rage and despair can yield paradoxical exultation. What's taken writers so long?