Affluent suburbanites so stupendously bored they shave their pubic hair and smoke crack. A psychologist who becomes convinced that her fragile patient is her adopted daughter but falls in love with her anyway. A child-murderer who encourages his 19-year-old pen pal to start an affair with a 12-year-old boy. A teenager who has assignations with a Barbie doll. (“I closed my mouth around Barbie and could feel her breath in mine. I could hear her screams in my throat. Her teeth, white, Pearl Drops, Pepsodent, and the whole Osmond family, bit my tongue and the inside of my cheek like I might accidently bite myself.”)
Vintage A.M. Homes, all of it. The story collection and four novels Homes wrote in the ’90s were equal parts depraved, absurdly funny, and deeply sad, a strange amalgam of John Waters’s “Pink Flamingos” and the desperate characters of Richard Yates. Her books from this time are miraculous, in their way — the kind of fiction that could work MFA students into a lather, spark an outraged protest, and get a good review in People magazine.
But after a decade of churning out highbrow shockers about once every three years, something changed. In the early aughts, Homes released a story collection diluted by her newfound interest in magical realism and an easily forgotten nonfiction effort describing her extended stay at the Chateau Marmont. In the midst of a few television projects, she came out with an uneven, frustrating memoir, “The Mistress’s Daughter,” and “This Book Will Save Your Life,” a novel about (gasp!) kindness.
Now, 13 years after her last nasty novel, Homes has at last returned to the darkness. As the title suggests, “May We Be Forgiven” concerns a man, the wimpy historian Harold Silver, seeking to atone for the fracas ignited when he is discovered having sexual relations with the wife of his volatile older brother, a television executive named George.
The book begins in the aftermath of an overblown Thanksgiving dinner at George’s house. As televisions blare and George’s “truly spineless” pubescent children stab at their smartphones, Harold and Jane, George’s wife, are left to clean up. Homes’s lurid descriptions of turkey stuffing and “casseroles caked with the debris of dinner” will make fans of 1999’s “Music for Torching” hopeful for the horrors to come: That novel, after all, begins in a very similar way.
But it turns out the events in “May We Be Forgiven” — save for a couple scenes of soul-destroying horror — are much gentler than that of its precursor. Instead of showing the depravity of upper-middle class existence via an ever-escalating series of outrageous plot points, the novel provides a more rounded depiction of a fallen world and thus leaves the reader with a deeper, richer sense of dread.
When George freaks out, he’s sent to a posh mental hospital, leaving Harold in charge of his house, his offspring, and his pets. Harold, a childless apartment-dweller, feels wholly unequipped for the task at hand. His desire to make things right conflicts with his essential passivity, a defense mechanism he acquired growing up in the shadow of a frightening tyrant brother. Vague recollections of childhood trauma bubble up yet are never fully resolved. Harold becomes prone to crying fits and hospitalizations. Everything bad that could possibly happen to him does, but he takes it on the chin. The overall effect of Harold’s passivity gives the novel a dreamlike air.
In signature Homes style, Harold has fraught sexual encounters with unnerving women that begin with an unconscious act: “I’m on George’s computer. Like a reflex, I automatically start Googling. First I check the ten-day forecast on the Weather Underground and then without thinking I type in ‘Sex+Suburbs+NYC,’ and a thousand sites pop up, as though the computer itself goes into hyperdrive.”
While Harold leaves his own internal life largely unexamined, he thinks long and hard about that of Richard M. Nixon, his scholarly focus. Literature is abuzz with Nixon lately — recall Thomas Mallon’s faithful political novel “Watergate” and Ann Beattie’s creative-writing exercise “Mrs. Nixon,” both published within the last 12 months. Here, “Tricky Dick’’ is a complex and haunting figure through which Homes examines power, masculinity, family dynamics, and the nature of harm and atonement. Better still, he leads to one of the novel’s best literary jokes: Harold keeps spotting a man who’s a dead-ringer for Don Delillo, a nod to “White Noise,’’ a novel similarly concerned with the insalubrious traits of an academic who has dedicated his life to studying a monster.
But monstrosity isn’t restricted to moneyed adults. George’s children, horrible in their own ways, are plagued with guilt and pledge to help the less fortunate. Their clumsy ministrations to the poor — also, at times, monstrous — result in desperate high-wire comic scenes worthy of Sam Lipsyte, or early A.M. Homes.
Starting with “This Book Will Save Your Life” and cemented with “May We Be Forgiven,” Homes has established her new métier as the master of the middle-aged bildungsroman. All the old rancor and psychosexual dysfunction are still there, floating just beneath the surface or in the ether. Just because Homes has matured doesn’t mean she’s gone soft.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.