Archives for posts with tag: American family

May We Be ForgivenHarry and George Silver are brothers. George is a very successful TV executive with a lovely wife and two children. Harry, the older of the two, is a history professor and Richard Nixon expert, who never reached his potential. His unfinished Nixon book haunts him. One night George gets into a car accident, killing a man and a woman, and leaving a young boy orphaned. George appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown, exposing a murderous temper. He then escapes from a hospital psych ward, comes home to find his wife, Jane, in bed with his brother and proceeds to bludgeon Jane to death. On discovering the adultery, Harry’s wife leaves him, he moves into George’s house, and takes custody of his kids – a son, Nate, and a daughter, Ashley. And it’s a black comedy, in case you didn’t get that from the plot.

All this happens in less than thirty pages. It’s startling. The rest of the book is, in a sense, about Harry adjusting to his new responsibilities, dealing with his guilt about Jane’s death, and creating a new family out of the wreckage of George’s crimes.

More specifically, the remainder of May We Be Forgiven is largely a series of incidents stemming from George’s breakdown, rather than a linear plot. Harry has sex with bored housewives he meets on the internet. Harry’s elderly mother gets married. He hosts Nate’s bar mitzvah in a South African village Nate helped build called Nateville. The episodic nature of the plot was particularly evident in the middle section, where an Israeli arms dealer subplot had me thinking, what the hell’s going on?

As Harry settles into his new life his routine is broken up by truly bizarre encounters with people. There’s his married nymphomaniac mistress/best friend, and the young woman Harry meets at an A&P supermarket who follows him home, has sex with him, but refuses to tell him her name, just for starters. Those two characters, in particular, are disconcertingly, unusually candid. Really all the conversations in May We Be Forgiven are strangely devoid of pretence. Everyone (including Harry) seems to just say exactly what’s on their mind. In one scene Harry is selling kittens that George’s cat had – a lady considering buying one has this encounter with Harry. She sends a text to check with her husband if she should buy the kitten, she gets back the reply ‘Use your best judgment.’

‘I think it’s an automated response’…‘He’s got a smartphone – you can program auto-responses to anything. Watch’, she says, texting back. ‘Do you want chicken or steak for dinner?’ And again, ‘Use your best judgment.’…‘He’s probably having an affair.’

Who shares that much with a complete stranger? And that’s the least of it. At times it makes for a ballsy, challenging book but sometimes it’s just ridiculous.

May We Be Forgiven is a dark book. The kind where shit just keeps happening. Each time I thought things were getting better for Harry and his motley gang of children, pets and elderly relatives something would go spectacularly wrong. But for all that goes wrong I wasn’t upset. In part because it is an amusing book but also, I didn’t connect with anyone. Every human interaction was surreal and absurd. Nothing was real. Harry blames himself for Jane’s murder, to the point where he says he’s as responsible as George. I can’t imagine what the appropriate emotional response is when your brother kills his wife in a psychotic rage in front of you but the guilt seemed forced and extreme. And Harry never even seems to really blame George, he’s barely angry with him. Satire allows for an exaggerated, outrageous version of reality, but the sense of distance Homes created meant I wasn’t terribly invested in the characters.

May We Be Forgiven is one of those books that describe all those awkward human processes – sex, diarrhoea, vomiting, eating, illness, farting, burping – in grotesque detail. It borders on scatology. Nate gets violently sick during a trip to Williamsburg, Ashley tries to remove a tampon she put in the wrong hole. I’m really not squeamish but I think Homes relied too heavily on these details. And to what end? I don’t get the point of being informed every time a character farts.

A.M. Homes is a talented writer, and an accomplished dark humorist. But often I either felt overwhelmed by the ruin George plunges his family into or stuck amongst extraneous details and strange set pieces going nowhere. That being said, May We Be Forgiven is an intriguing and ambitious novel, perhaps worth reading for Homes’s unique take on tragedy.

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The LeftoversOne day, without any explanation, people all over the world just disappeared. In the wake of the tragedy the citizens of Mapleton are trying to piece together their lives. Town mayor, Kevin Garvey, is trying to keep a positive outlook despite his wife leaving him to join a new cult, the Guilty Remnant, and his son ditching college to become a disciple of the self-styled prophet Holy Wayne. Even his once loving daughter, Jill, has turned against him.

As Kevin navigates his new life he finds friendship in odd places, including in Nora. Nora’s whole family (her two young children and her husband) disappeared during the Sudden Departure or ‘Rapture-like phenomenon’. She tries to grieve in peace but in a small town like Mapleton Nora becomes the subject of gossip and scandal, the enormity of her loss marking her out as different.

It’s hard when a book sounds intriguing but you don’t know what to expect from it. The Leftovers doesn’t sound like anything out there. The unexplained disappearances point to science fiction, a cult leader named Holy Wayne seems like comedy or social satire, a man dealing with his two wayward children – American family drama. Can it be all these things successfully? It’s a big risk for Tom Perrotta to take. People love to categorise but The Leftovers eludes easy definition. And I think this will stop a lot of people from giving it a chance. But please don’t let it stop you. The Leftovers is excellent.

It soon becomes clear that The Leftovers is only speculative fiction in the remotest sense. Apart from the disappearances the world is just as it was. The Rapture-like event is an inventive conceit, a jumping off point to explore loss, upheaval, the inexplicable, and the human psyche in a way that’s touching and refreshing. It’s a clever way to look at the dysfunctional American family.

The characters do some completely nutty things. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, joins a cult that requires members to take a vow of silence, chain smoke and stalk people. Jill shaves off all her hair. Kevin’s son, Tom, takes a road trip with a pregnant teenager who believes she’s carrying the son of a holy prophet. College students, calling themselves the Harvard flagellants, march through Harvard Yard whipping themselves with cat-o’-nine-tails, while yelling out their SAT scores. The Barefoot People travel around the country holding solstice gatherings where everybody takes drugs, has sex and dances. Under normal circumstances I would pronounce them all idiots and be done with them (even if I did find the stuff about bizarre cults and religions fascinating). But even if I normally wouldn’t understand at all, Perrotta makes them almost seem sane, just ordinary people trying to cope under insane circumstances. The affection he has for his characters made me feel like if everyone just had more time to adjust they could get through it. I wanted so badly for them to be all right.

The big draw is Perrotta’s writing. He knows people. He knows how they interact, their deepest desires, their greatest fears.

Without it, he would’ve become one of those lost souls you saw all over campus that winter, pale, vampiry kids who slept all day…habitually checking their phones for a message that never seemed to come.

His adroit portraits (here, of the distracted grief of young people) are always evocative and amusing.

At his local bar, the Carpe Diem, Kevin Garvey runs into Melissa, a woman he would have slept with had it not been for a touch of performance anxiety.

“Melissa.” He made an effort to match the warmth of her greeting. “It’s been a while, huh?”

“Three months,” she informed him. “At least.”

“That long?” He pretended to do the math in his head, then expelled a grunt of fake wonderment.

Perrotta perfectly captures the awkwardness of faux-polite social interactions. He’s wryly funny and terrifically insightful.

In one scene Nora feels brave enough to go Christmas shopping at the mall. Even simple tasks have changed irrevocably for those who have been left behind. Everything she does is a reminder of what she’s lost. At the mall Nora considers buying a wildly expensive massage chair, which leads her to think about the implications of actually allowing herself to feel good all the time. Grief and loss have come to define her, what would she be without it? It’s an odd interlude but, as with the rest of The Leftovers, it’s intimate, finely drawn, and it makes you think.

In another scene Nora and Kevin have an argument, and Nora storms off. And it’s exactly how it feels when you’ve had a fight with someone you really care about. Who calls first to apologise? Should you pretend you don’t even care? But it’s eating you up inside not calling, so maybe you should just call straight away. Absolutely spot on.

The Sudden Departure gives Perrotta the opportunity to explore the dark and strange in humanity but also its capacity for forgiveness and love. The Leftovers is darker than I expected, there were times when I was terrified that nothing would ever work out, but it’s tempered by glimpses of humour and hope, hope that Kevin and the rest of them, will somehow muddle through.