I HAD READ two or three of Homes's short stories in Granta and elsewhere and found them worthwhile without feeling any urge to look into her novels. She was a dab hand at describing fucked-up families--but that talent is not in short supply these days. I don't know why I went ahead and took a chance on this--something was whispering to me in the reviews, I suppose--but I did, and it is superb.
The novel opens on Thanksgiving, the fucked-up family holiday par excellence. Our narrator and main character, married but childless Nixon scholar (shades of White Noise?) Harry Silver, has the hots for the wife of his younger, more successful, richer, altogether more intimidating brother,=
George. George is involved in an auto accident in which a hispanic couple is killed and begins behaving erratically; while he in a hospital under observation, Harry and George's wife Jane (shades of The Jetsons?) begin an affair. George sneaks out of the hospital, comes home, discovers them in bed, and smashes Jane's head in with a lamp. He is taken into custody again, and Harry now has to look after his brother's house and kids.
That all happens in the first twenty pages. Things slow down a bit at that point--but not much.
The novel streams past in short episodes (no chapters, parts. sections, or other divisions) narrated by Harry in the present tense, and something about that stylistic decision (I don't think I've read another first-person fiction of this length written in the present tense) makes every development seem like a surprise. Lots more happens to Harry: he has a stroke, his wife leaves him, he loses his job, he begins hooking up with strangers via internet dating services, and everything seems to come out of the clear blue sky like a boulder thrown by a dyspeptic god.
Some of the events seem implausible, and intentionally so--the dog has kittens--but even the strangest have a subtle believability almost by virtue of their unpredictability, as in an inspired improvisational comedy sketch. Characters who seem mere walk-on types suddenly acquire nuance and depth, tawdry situations become poignant, chance begins to seem like design.
Improv may even be the key to the novel. Harry learns to say Yes, and. In a sea of turbulent uncertainty, he learns to tread water and then to swim. He turns out to have a knack for parenting. He gets the opportunity to edit Nixon's fiction. Women begin to find him intriguing. He embraces the herbal remedies of the shaman in the South African village where his nephew decides to have his bar mitzvah--Homes makes even that seem believable--and is finally able to pass his magnum opus on Nixon like a giant, barnacled kidney stone.
Somehow, his utterly fucked-up decision to make a play at his sister-in-law has led to a train of choices and contingencies that add up, by the time a year has elapsed since that fateful Thanksgiving, to a strangely happy ending. Harry still stands in need of being forgiven, of course, as the final sentence and title remind us.
In the acknowledgements, Homes thanks Zadie Smith, "who asked the question that got the whole thing going." What was the question? My guess: the brief italicized bit at the opening: "Was there ever a time you thought--I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don't know why." Some of the characters in Smith's NW certainly had reason to find themselves thinking that, as Harry does. Something in both novels seems to be about finding the other in the self, shaking hands with the stranger inside we have lived with all our lives; in Smith's book, it's a short cut to trouble, but in Homes's, it has something liberating. For all the damage Harry SIlver's decisions do, we're left with a sense of the possibilities for himself and others that he has opened up.