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The Safety of Objects

Surreal Suburbia 

By C. Carr

They voyage through oceanwide malls, nest in snug homes, peck at their lawns. And bluer than velvet are their eyes. (So to speak.) Suburbanites live a dream much dissected of late by pop-culture surrealists, who underline the "ill" within "idyll". And honey, they shrink the kids. Now, in The Safety of Objects, her first story collection, A.M. Homes finds mystery in the "'burbs" without special effects or exotic underbellies. We get a tour through the action adventure of everyday fantasies.

Many of Homes's characters lead two lives, one on God's most conventional little acre, one in some alternative universe. Perhaps because children inhabit their imaginations without guilt, Homes's kid characters are tough, while the grown-ups shatter easily, depending for definition on their jobs, their obligations and the identities money can buy. In "Adults Alone," a couple packs their two boys off to grandma's house and suddenly faces the void: total freedom. They decide to smoke crack. By contrast, "Chunky in Heat" features a fat, adolescent girl who happily imagines herself as "pure sex" as she masturbates in the backyard on a lawn chair.

Homes grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, wanting to be a rock star, hating her name. "I wouldn't read anything written by someone named Amy," she says, "I think my parents wanted a very sweet child. They got me instead." In high school, Homes managed to pass herself off as a working photographer and get backstage to hang out with rock heroes like Bowie and the Stones. 

Now living in New York City's Greenwich Village, she still has something of the precocious kid about her. I guess her age at twenty-eight. She admits to being "around there," but stopped telling at "around eighteen." She'd written The Call-in Hours then, a play inspired by the John Lennon murder, about Holden Caulfield (Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye when he killed Lennon). Caulfield tells a radio audience that J.D. Salinger didn't make him up, that he's a real person and that they ought to let go of him as an icon. When Salinger's representatives found out about this piece, says Homes, "they decided it would be a great test case for the copyright law." Homes hadn't done it to provoke Salinger. She made the daily papers. Her hair began to fall out. Under legal threat she agreed to eliminate the names of Caulfield and Salinger from the play. 

Homes writes many young characters, never sweetens them, never condescends. Teenage boys are a specialty. Last year she published Jack, a novel about a fifteen-year-old boy whose father is gay. And, she says, she identifies with "failed men in their forties."

"A Real Doll" may be the most emblematic story in Homes's collection, with its fetish object that speaks straight to a kid. The Barbie. A boy develops a sexual fascination with his sister's doll, and they "date" when he can sneak her out of the sister's room. But Sis has her own rituals in progress. Biting the doll's toes. Switching her head with Ken's. Hanging her from the ceiling fan. And in a way of course, everyone has a Barbie—the inner world you can't explain to anyone. 
[Excerpt from "A Real Doll":]

I'm dating Barbie. Three afternoons a week, while my sister is at dance class, I take Barbie away from Ken. I'm practicing for the future. 

At first I sat in my sister's room watching Barbie, who lived with Ken, on a doily, on top of the dresser.
I was looking at her but not really looking. I was looking, and all of the sudden realized she was staring at me. 
She was sitting next to Ken, his khaki-covered thigh absently rubbing her bare leg. He was rubbing her, but she was staring at me. 
"Hi," she said. 
"Hello," I said. 
"I'm Barbie," and Ken stopped rubbing her leg. 
"I know."
"You're Jenny's brother."
I nodded. My head was bobbing up and down like a puppet on a weight.
"So, listen," I said, "Would you like to go out for a while? Grab some fresh air, maybe take a spin around the backyard?"
"Sure," she said. 
I picked her up by her feet. It sounds unusual but I was too petrified to take her by the waist. I grabbed her by the ankles and carried her off like a Popsicle stick. 
As soon as we were out back, I started freaking. I was suddenly and incredibly aware that I was out with Barbie. I didn't know what to say. 
"So, what kind of Barbie are you?"
"Excuse me?"
"Well, from listening to Jennifer I know there's Day to Night Barbie, Magic Moves Barbie, Gift-Giving-Barbie, Tropical Barbie, My First Barbie and more."
"I'm Tropical," she said, the same way a person might say I'm Catholic or I'm Jewish. "I come with a bathing suit, a brush, a ruffle you can wear so many ways," Barbie squeaked. 
She actually squeaked. It turned out that squeaking was Barbie's birth defect. I pretended I didn't hear it. 
We were quiet for a minute. A leaf larger than Barbie fell from the maple tree above us and I caught it just before it would have hit her. I half expected her to squeak, "You saved my life. I'm yours, forever." Instead she said, in a perfectly normal voice, "Wow, big leaf."