“[T]imes have changed. The world is not what it once was.” That’s a line from the middle of A.M. Homes’ first book in six years, May We Be Forgiven, and it’s an apt line that pretty much sums up the novel. The world of May We Be Forgiven is a dark place, a place where men who have sex with female strangers wind up being held briefly hostage by the young children of the sex object in question, where a young woman suddenly goes missing and winds up dead in a garbage bag, where, on an excursion to a foreign continent, tourists get run off the road and nearly wind up being carjacked.
It’s also a world seemingly populated with idiots, the type of people who pay for a $2 coffee with their debit card and hold up the line forming behind them without a care in the world. OK, so that last one doesn’t happen in this novel, but the gist of it (my personal coffee shop pet peeve) is there: May We Be Forgiven is layered with people trying to navigate the inane world, if not overbearing bureaucracies, and nearly get buried in the process. I think John Sayles says it best in his blurb on the back of the book cover: “What if whoever wrote the story of Job had a sense of humor?” May We Be Forgiven is a book of pathos, and yet is darkly comedic at the same time. It’s a fine line to walk, but Homes does a pretty deft job of stringing both ends together.
There’s a lot going on in this novel – it is indeed incredibly plot heavy – but it’s basically the story of the life of one man and his brother over a rather tumultuous year, and tumultuous is putting it rather lightly. George Silver is a high-powered network executive in New York who has it all: two beautiful kids, a beautiful wife, a rather nice home. His older brother, Harold, is a Nixon scholar who teaches at a university and is married to a Chinese-American woman.
When the story opens, George gets into a nasty car accident that leaves the husband and wife occupants of the other car dead, and their young son fairly injured. George goes into the mental hospital following this rash event, but he manages to get out and comes home to find Harold, who is taking care of George’s wife during the trauma, in his bed with said wife. George then proceeds to bash his wife’s head in with a bedside lamp, and she later dies in hospital. And, of course, that’s when the real, pardon the expression, shit show begins for Harold.
The news is splashed all over the front page of newspapers, he gets divorced as a result, suffers a minor stroke, starts receiving random threatening letters, and loses his job as a university professor, all the while basically taking over George’s life: he obtains possession of George’s home, gains custody of the children, and eventually winds up taking the young boy damaged in the initial car accident under his wing at George’s children’s urgings. All the while bedding two other separate women, one of whom he met on the Internet, the other in a grocery store. But before Harold can pull everyone together, he undergoes a rather dark tea time of the soul, for he muses at one point early on: “Before this happened, I had a life, or at least I thought I did; the quality, the successfulness of it had not been called into question. I was about to do something ....”
Ultimately, May We Be Forgiven is a story of redemption, how one fairly messed up man winds up creating something akin to a family out of a series of unfortunate events. The book is one fairly long journey (the novel clocks in at nearly 500 pages), and it is bleakly humorous for much of it. When Harold has his stroke, he has the following exchange with a doctor in the hospital:
Doctor: “[Y]ou’re okay. You’ll be going home soon. Are there any questions?”
Harold: “Can I fuck?”
There’s a loud pause.
Harold: “I worry that taking my brother’s Viagra is what caused this ‘incident’.”
Doctor: “How so?”
Harold: “I was taking a good amount of the stuff and, well, I worry I blew a fuse, so to speak.”
Doctor: “I don’t think so, but it’s an interesting idea. I’ll make a note of it.”
However, beyond the humor and punchlines, there’s insertions into the text at times where Homes is making an authorial comment on the craziness of the modern world: that the nuclear family exists no more, that we’re all strangers randomly connected to one another, that the so-called American Dream went off the rails at some point:
“There is a world out there, so new, so random and disassociated that it puts us all in danger. We talk online, we ‘friend’ each other when we don’t know who we are really talking to – we fuck strangers. We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version – it is easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight.”
By peppering the lives of these strange individuals with such interstitial moments, Homes is clearly painting on a rather large canvass, additionally weaving in subplot after subplot to a point where sanity and a sense of clear narrative seems to blur. May We Be Forgiven is an extraordinarily busy book, and some may find it reads like an ADD child who has forgotten to take his medication, but it moves to the incredibly profound and touching, especially when Harold begins to bond with George’s children and assorted hangers-on who wind up becoming part of this extended “family”. That said, the book does delve into the scatological perhaps one times too many: there’s an ongoing running joke about Harold occasionally coming down with a bad case of diarrhea. Still, there are few flaws to be had with this propulsive and engaging novel – save for one major one, and few other niggling items.
It turns out that George’s story is rather underwritten, and he disappears into the ether for large swaths of the story, which is confusing, as the bulk of the novel, at least at first, seems to be directly tied into his fate. And, at one point, it threatens to go off the rails when he is sent to a prison camp in the wilderness and winds up trading arms with an Israeli on an iPad that Harold sends to him for his birthday, a subplot point that feels dialled in from a Tom Clancy novel and is rather over-the-top. (You’ll know what I mean when you actually get to that point of the book.)
A lot of George’s personality comes through as well with what other people have to say about him, which breaks the old “show, don’t tell” convention of fiction writing. And another thing that’s a bit perturbing is that there are so many plot points in the book that some simply get dropped and there’s the feeling, once you close the book, that there are a few too many loose ends and unresolved issues. Even at nearly 500 pages, this novel could have been arguably longer.
Still, May We Be Forgiven is an absorbing and painfully funny read, albeit in a rather depressing way. It’s easy to get carried along with the ups and downs of Harold Silver’s life, and marvel at how he manages to pull not only his life together, but those around him, after teetering on the brink of emotional and physical collapse. He truly grows as a character throughout the novel, though it’s due to the fact that responsibility seems thrust at him, and the reader will be left wondering how on earth he’s going to manage to tie all of these threads together.
In the end, May We Be Forgiven is a richly rewarding ride, one that manages to view America through a distorted lens, and yet paints a hopeful and optimistic picture, even though Harold has to negotiate a rather crass and commercialized landscape where solving problems usually means throwing money at them. (Even with the divorce and dismissal from his teaching job, it seems that Harold manages to come up with ways to more than make ends meet, which, too, may be a tad ridiculous to some.) All in all, May We Be Forgiven is not an easy book to forget, and is one that you may want to read with the front door bolted and locked and the blinds drawn. Indeed, the world is not what it once was, and May We Be Forgiven, despite any weaknesses, is simply a startling and unconventional reminder of that.