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The Safety of Objects

Our Secret Selves

By Bob Satuloff

Reading an author for the first time can be a risky business. It can start out innocently enough as a sort of recreational literary one-night-stand, but if the author's sensibility, voice, and style make a strong enough impression, you may wind up with a long-term relationship on your hands. Less than halfway through "Adults Alone"—the first story in A.M. Homes's collection The Safety of Objects—it was more than clear that I had added a new name to the list of authors whose every new piece of work I feel compelled to read. 

All ten of Homes's stories are set in suburbia. The principal characters are the sort of people who appear at first to be the very soul of convention; ordinary types; men, women, and children you wouldn't look at twice if you passed them on the street, at the mall, or in line at the sixplex. Once inside their heads, however, it's soon apparent that they are as rife with secrets, as truly bizarre as the private inner selves we never dare reveal. In "Adults Alone," a middle-aged, Jewish married couple sends their two kids off to Florida for a week to stay with their grandmother. By themselves for the first time in years, freed from the shackles of responsibility for an entire week, they begin exploring their desires slowly. Elaine starts out by indulging herself with the kinds of food her kids would never countenance her buying: "Smelly cheese, pate, crackers with seeds, wine"; and Paul can't seem to stop playing with the kids' video games.

Before you know it, this couple is dropping the everyday disciplines of life at an increasing pace. The bed is left unmade. Unshowered, they're wearing the same clothing over and over again, driving to deserted spots and smoking joints. At one point, eating in their crumb-filled bed with the television set going, they lose track of their remote and are stuck watching a news report on crack.

"As they're watching it, they're both thinking it looks great. It looks fun." By the next day, there are six vials of crack sitting on the dining room table. What seems so remarkable is that Elaine and Paul are utterly convincing characters, and Homes tells the story in an off-handed, matter-of-fact way, as if this is simply how it is, no big deal.

In "Looking for Johnny," a kidnapped nine-year-old boy fails to measure up to the standards of his ultimately disgusted abductor. Jim Train, a rising Iawyer in a prestigious New York firm, makes sure he's the last one to leave the office so he can piss into his boss's potted plant.

Frank, the protagonist of "The Bullet Catcher," finds himself simultaneously morally repelled and sexually attracted by the surreal-seeming teenage subculture of his local shopping mall.

Sexuality is a major component of the stories, and Homes captures and communicates the sexuality of her characters—men, women—and children—with clarity, sensuality, and total authority. It's hard to think of a writer in recent years whose take on sex is as startling, sensual, funny, and discomforting as Homes's.

The overweight teenage title character of "Chunky in Heat" who is eroticized by her own ample flesh, the young man in "The I of It" whose relationship to his penis dominates his existence, the eight-year-old girl in "Slumber Party" whose life takes a turn when an adolescent burglar touches her her vagina with his finger, the way in which these characters are rendered seems unique, entirely new.

The final story, "A Real Doll," is an account of the sexual relationship that develops between a teenage boy and his kid sister's Barbie doll. The Tropical Barbie we meet is hot to trot, doesn't mince words, and is contemptuous of Ken's plastic hump, which passes for his genitals. By the time the boy is spiking Barbie's Diet Cokes with Valium, we begin to learn the way in which his sister is secretly abusing her doll.

Without spewing out too many more adjectives, suffice it to say that A.M. Homes is an extraordinary writer. Her work is the kind of subversive entertainment that—by means of specificity—reaches beyond the barriers of its subject matter and challenges the way we look at the world and ourselves. The Safety of Objects is anything but safe, but it sure is fascinating.