A.M. Homes’s new novel, May We Be Forgiven (Viking; $27.95), begins like this: “Do you want my recipe for disaster?”
And then everybody goes bananas. The narrator, Harry Silver, is cleaning up after Thanksgiving dinner when his brother’s wife kisses him. Two pages later, his brother, George, kills two people in a car accident and ends up confined to a psychiatric ward. Harry is thus briefly at leisure to sleep with George’s wife, but he has only a few paragraphs in which to enjoy himself, because George soon surprises them together and beats his wife to death with a lamp. Harry’s own wife leaves him when the story gets out, George begins his mysterious peregrination through the justice system, and Harry is left in charge of George’s dog and cat and house and kids. These are busy pages indeed for the luckless, feckless, affectless narrator, but he nevertheless finds time to have a stroke—a misfortune that doesn’t prevent him from visiting his brother at a facility in the Catskills, where George beats him up.
So the novel begins, and so it continues, breathless and chaotic and dense with incident. At one point Harry weeps so vigorously in a public park that someone calls the police. At another he’s held hostage by the children of a woman with whom he thinks he’s scheduled an assignation. He accidentally punches his brother’s accountant in the face; he sticks his own head in the toilet and flushes; he goes to an AA meeting and says, “I hardly drink. I guess I could drink more. I’ve been watching you all from outside. You looked warm and friendly and welcoming.” In the hospital after his stroke, he wonders who will take care of George’s dog and cat. When the nurse tells him that adoption is always an option, he says hopefully, “Someone would adopt me?” I wish I’d counted the number of times he vomits. At Busch Gardens, he vomits all over a trash can that looks like a dwarf.
But this can’t go on forever. Harry is now the legal guardian of George’s children, who soon return from their expensive boarding schools, and lessons must be learned; children, after all, can teach us about joy and responsibility and all the rest. Happily, though, these children are like everyone in the novel—they are insistent and fully drawn, they take up the whole page, they say unexpected and wonderful things—and Homes manages a graceful and fully credible transition from disaster-slapstick to lesson-learning and gravitas.
But the reader should discover this novel for him- or herself. For me, it was like this: after ten pages I thought, “Here are eight hours I don’t have to worry about.”
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The listless narrator of Sherman Alexie’s “Scenes From a Life,” which is included in a new collection called Blasphemy (Grove; $27), dismisses literature, and indeed all of human life, by observing, “The people in each book might be different, but the plotline is basically the same: Somebody is unhappy and they do dangerous and foolish things trying to become happy.”
Frank Snake Church, for instance, eats a large amount of his father’s hair. Later, on a self-improvement kick that lands him in a mental hospital, he makes a to-do list: “Bury your father, visit your mother’s grave cry, eat hair, play basketball again, lose weight.” Other characters commit crimes, discard possessions, vent their rage in inappropriate ways, and drink and drink and drink. But although these stories are grim by any reasonable standard, they are sustained by Alexie’s sharp delivery and rueful wit. “True or False?” the narrator of “War Dances” wants to ask his father, “when a reservation-raised Native American dies of alcoholism it should be considered death by natural causes.” Later he summarizes his father’s philosophy of life: “If God really loved Indians, he would have made us white people.”
For me, the highlight of the collection—which includes some older pieces as well as new stories—is “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” It rings with a prophetic desolation that reminds me of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. On a night “Hot enough to make you go crazy,” a heartbroken Spokane Indian harasses the graveyard-shift employee at a 7-Eleven. In his aimless wanderings, he seems a figure for all indigenous Americans, which is apparently how he sees himself. When a policeman stops him one night to say that he’s making people nervous, that he doesn’t “fit the profile of the neighborhood,” the Indian wants to say that he doesn’t “fit the profile of the country.” He is “out of shape from drinking and sadness.” He wishes he lived closer “to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump.” He can’t sleep, but it doesn’t matter: “I know how all my dreams end anyway.”
An Indian poet in “The Search Engine” speaks cynically about the paradox of being an Indian writer. “No matter what I write,” he says, “a bunch of other Indians will hate it because it isn’t Indian enough, and a bunch of white people will like it because it’s Indian.” It is this experience and this feeling—the feeling of being marginalized and idealized at the same time, the struggle to be a person instead of an idea, the shame of watching the sun go down on one’s own people—that Sherman Alexie writes about with such grace and honesty and humor.
The best of these stories are devastating. They hum with “a reservation kind of quiet, where you can hear somebody drinking whiskey on the rocks three miles away.” Out there, casual disputes end in murder, even the ghosts are exhausted, and nostalgia is something you can die from.
In his previous contribution to Shelf Life, Aaron Tier reviewed fiction by Maureen F. McHugh (After the Apocalypse) and Joshua Cohen (Four New Messages).