Vivid, violent comedy of terrors

Distinctive comedy writer is on dark, top form


The start of A M Homes’s new novel, is truly to die for: the action is murderous, and the shattering of successful lives delivered with g-force intensity. Homes sets brothers Harry and George Silver (an Esau and Jacob of the heavily health-insured, SUV generation) against each other.

Narrator Harry, the older and less gifted of the two, is a childless historian struggling to finish a book about Nixon. TV executive George is highly volatile, but his covetable wife and Westchester lifestyle keep his temper more or less buttoned until, one day, driving home, he boils over. A double disaster of sex, violence and derangement ensues. By page 20, two families are destroyed.

The novel then moves into the dark, satirical territory where Homes excels. The medics and lawyers charged with George’s care and detention would probably score higher on the psychotic scale than his briefly strait-jacketed self. And the discovery of some reflective short stories by the disgraced Richard Nixon suggests that even he, after all, had some good — and intellect.

Repair and redemption preoccupy Harry’s mind as he takes over George’s household complete with pets and his now essentially parentless, disturbed and painfully pubescent nephew Nate and niece Ashley.

It may illuminate this shiningly imaginative work to know that Homes once said of herself: “I will always be something glued together, something slightly broken”. Adopted, and raised Jewish, she learned only at 31 that her birth parents were both actually half-Jewish and half-Catholic. Like her forgiven protagonists, Homes had to make her own emotional voyage of discovery.

Seeking the source of George’s screwed psyche, Harry, too, does the round of relatives and learns that weirdness was already hard-wired in his parents’ generation. Extended family ceased to gather for High Holy-Days following a fall-out over the requisite texture of matzah balls. His mother accused an aunt of making off with her jewels. The aunt claimed that George, when young, attempted to re-circumcise his cousin with a compass, protractor and glue.

For some tastes, perhaps, Homes weaves off-road a tad too often, presenting sub-plot scenes with a large cast of unessential, pop-up crazies. But I would not lose a word of her whip-sharp wit or unerring dialogue. As for the character cavalcade, Homes suggests that we are all at least part-product of those we meet along the way. As Harry’s calendar year of atonement comes full circle, he observes: “I am… thinking of everyone I’ve ever known; every hello and goodbye sweeps through me like an autumn breeze.”

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