The best novelists are those whose voice is unmistakable and whose hand is invisible upon the page. I’m not talking about the show-off “experimentalists” whose stylistic convolutions twist the life out of their plots and characters and whose egos surpass their skills. I’m talking about novelists whose writing you’d recognize if they used a pseudonym.
One member of this rare breed is A.M. Homes. A graduate of the iconic Iowa Writers' Workshop, Homes has earned a glittering list of fellowships (the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Arts), teaching gigs (Columbia University, The New School), magazine assignments (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair), and readers in 18 languages. Between her first book, "Jack," in 1989, and this new one, "May We Be Forgiven," her 12th, Homes has honed her gift for melding controversy, craft and sardonic cultural critique. Her surgically precise dissections of American family life moved Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham, in 1996, to call her "one of the bravest, most terrifying writers working today."
"May We Be Forgiven" is Homes' most complicated, hilarious, acerbic and accomplished novel yet. In a mere 480 pages (this is a big book, in every sense of the word, and it earns its heft) she manages to set fire to many of our less admirable laws, policies and characterological qualities: the penal system, our care (and lack thereof) of the elderly, school sex scandals, religion, gender identity, whitewashing of history, infidelity, insanity, murder, gay marriage, class, race, grief — and our inability to deal with most of it. Like much of Homes' work, in essence, "May We Be Forgiven" is about family.
When we meet the book's protagonist, Harold Silver is 48, unhappily married, child free, stymied by a stultifying academic career as a Nixon scholar, nursing a lifelong grudge against his younger brother George, a TV executive and seemingly happily married father of two. Early in the novel, George goes ballistic (literally), triggering (literally) a series of events that transform Harold from a shut-down depressive into a loving, suburban stay-at-home dad of two and then, when the family adopts an 8-year-old orphan, three.
The topics under scrutiny aren't light, but Homes' wit ensures a laugh or two or 10 per page with her hilariously improbable characters and plot. In one scene, Harold delivers the final lecture of his career, a heavily researched, pages-long homage to Richard Nixon. "A girl in the front row laughs," Homes writes. "'Nineteen-seventy-four, I wasn't even born yet,' she says." Another student asks, "Can you tell us what you will grade us on?"
"I will be grading on a U-turn," Harold replies.
Desperate for solace, our hero attends an unnamed 12-step meeting, where he gathers the courage to speak. "'I got fired,' I say. … 'My wife is filing for divorce. I am living in my brother's house while he's in the bin. I ... recently started using his computer — you know, going online … making lots of lunch dates with women ….'"
"Were you drunk?" someone asks.
"No," I say. "Not a bit."
"Do you have a drinking problem?"
"I hardly drink. I guess I could drink more. I've been watching you all from outside. You looked warm and friendly and welcoming."
"Sorry, Nit," the group says in unison.
"You have to go," the leader adds, and I feel like I've been kicked off the island. I get up from my folding chair and exit, passing the old aluminum coffeepot with its ready light, the quart of whole milk, the sugar, the donuts, all the things I was looking forward to. I am tempted to take myself to a bar to become an alcoholic overnight, so I can go back."
If this were a lesser writer's domestic drama, you could pretty much write the rest of the story yourself. But Homes is — thankfully — predictably unpredictable.
Meredith Maran is the author of "A Theory of Small Earthquakes."
May We Be Forgiven
By A.M. Homes, Viking, 480 pages, $27.95