Shocking optimist hits a nerve
Witnessing the 9/11 attacks turned AM Homes, known for her suburban gothic novels, into a more redemptive writer, as she tells Rosemary Neill
IN September 2001, AM Homes was at home in New York’s Greenwich Village when a friend phoned to tell her a plane had hit the World Trade Centre. Homes’s apartment had a clear view of the twin towers and the novelist assumed a small plane must have accidentally struck one.
‘‘ Then I looked out the window and as the second plane came in I saw it hit,’’ she says. ‘‘ It was the first time in my life that I had seen something far more terrifying than what I could do in my imagination.’’
Homes, 51, is one of the most talented, polarising and brazenly original writers of her generation, and she says the 9/11 attacks changed the tenor of her fiction. In a telephone interview with Review, she recalls how witnessing the worst terrorist attack on American soil ‘‘ was the first time reality became, really, an unsafe place to be. It made me think about a lot of things.’’
It also provoked her into writing ‘‘ optimistically at a time that’s not optimistic; trying to think about our responsibilities to one another’’.
The author, known for her suburban gothic tales of crack-smoking commuters and pedophiles who become penpals, has crafted more redemptive works in recent years. Take her latest novel, May We Be Forgiven. Populated with characters who are at once extravagantly flawed and plausibly human, the story centres on a middle-aged man who discovers his humanity late in life as he helps resolve a family tragedy he partly brings about.
Harry is a history professor, a Nixon specialist, with an indifferent marriage and an obnoxious brother who is taller, richer and more successful than he is. When the brother, George, a television executive, causes a car accident that kills two people, he goes mad and is hospitalised.
Harry comforts George’s wife and the two end up in bed together. George, who has a filthy temper, stumbles in on them and kills his wife with a bedside lamp.
Harry finds himself bringing up his brother’s grieving kids and reaching out to a third grieving child. At first blush, this sounds like a made-for-Hollywood transformation. However, in her excavation of contemporary social mores, Homes imbues even the most tragic or poignant events with a sense of the absurd — from the dumb things well-meaning adults say to the bereaved children at their mother’s wake, to the childless Harry comforting a menstruating 11-year-old who has inserted a tampon in the wrong ‘‘ hole’’.
It’s a literary highwire act, and Homes — who had planned to tour Australia next month but pulled out for health reasons — says she uses comedy ‘‘ quite intentionally, to go deeper emotionally into these lives. I think that when you are funny you can actually say more sometimes than when you are being serious.’’ This novel, her sixth, has many highprofile admirers, including Salman Rushdie, who said of it: ‘‘ I can’t remember when I last read a novel of such narrative intensity . . . [it is] an unflinching account of a catastrophic, violent, black-comic, transformative year in the history of one broken American family. Flat-out amazing.’’
In contrast, the literary world was sharply