Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #3

#3: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
In lieu of just a full-on review here for Number 3 on the countdown, I first give you this little anecdote:

Back in July I was lucky enough to get invited to one of those pre-publication dinners hosted by a publisher in honor of one of their authors. Most big pubs do this from time to time, both as a way of getting the word out about an upcoming book or an author that they want to push into the next level or maybe it's just a flatout bribery of the local buyers. Hey, whatever. This one was a dinner for A.M. Homes - author of one of the original Catapult Notables from back in aught-6 and the brand new blackly comic novel, May We Be Forgiven - held at the fancy Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, the infamous hotel on Sunset Boulevard where Jim Morrison fell off the roof, Helmut Newton died in a car crash in the driveway, and John Belushi overdosed on speedballs. Hunter S. Thompson, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay McInerney and A.M. Homes herself have all made extended stays there over the years. Sort of weird cultural bastion - an oasis for creative types to avoid the Hollywood spotlight, believe it or not.

I arrived later than I would have liked, since I got stuck in the godawful, shit-ass traffic that exists between San Diego and Los Angeles. On the flip side though, I ended up sitting next to Homes at the table. (There were probably 15 people at this dinner.) We talked about the novel - which I had finished reading a few weeks before - how funny it was, how dark it was, yadda yadda. Mostly A.M. held court though, talking about the Chateau and her time within its walls. (She had been in Hollywood working on The L Word - the Showtime program which she wrote and produced - and lived at the Chateau for the time she was out there.) The hotel has all kinds of hidden nooks and idiosyncrasies that fascinate - beyond the facts that Howard Hughes once lived in the penthouse and Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby. At one point she told me about this great antique desk that is in the lounge off the main lobby. It's a great desk to sit and write at, when it's quiet, but the best part, she told me, is that it's filled with this great Chateau Marmont stationery. "Before you leave, you got to get some of that paper," she whispered to me conspiratorially. (I don't think she's capable of whispering, by the way. Creative license there.) So after dinner, while everyone was saying their "goodbyes" and "thank yous," A.M. Homes took me by the arm and brought me down into the lounge, where she ransacked the antique desk and filled my hands with all sorts of stationery. "Isn't this great?" she said. "Yeah!" I replied, now the owner of a pad of paper, several envelopes, and 5 correspondence-sized sheets of rag paper, all embossed with the Chateau Marmont logo.

So I was bribed with a fancy dinner and free stationery, it's true, but the thing is, I had already read May We Be Forgiven and loved it.

This is one of those books that you alternately find yourself laughing and snorting out loud in public because of and then feeling bad for laughing at the horrible thing you just thought was so funny. Whenever I try to pitch this one to someone, they think it sounds like an awful story. (This started with my wife while I was reading it and I could never dig myself out of the hole I was in.) Harold Silver is in a loveless marriage, he hates his successful, obnoxious older brother, George, and when on Thanksgiving, George's wife, Jane plants a secret kiss on Harry, he decides to roll with it. Soon after, George gets into a car accident and kills two people, so, naturally, Harry starts sleeping with Jane. (I never said these were good people.) Then George "escapes" from the hospital where he is being kept under observation, walks home, where he finds Harry in bed with Jane, and calmly murders Jane with a table lamp, right in front of Harry. All of this happens in the first 14 pages of the book, mind you, so I'm hardly giving anything away. Yet, this is the point where I lose people, funny enough. Just when it starts to get good, I swear! Sigh...

The rest of the book tracks Harry's progess in the world over the course of the following year. It's a kind of controlled madness on Homes' part. Harry moves into his brother's house, starts taking care of George's two kids (Ashley & Nate, who are both much smarter than Harry), has his brother committed to an experimental insane asylum (sort of a "Most Dangerous Game"-sort of thing), walks the dog, feeds the cat, meets local housewives in internet sex-chatrooms, sets up a bar mitzvah for Nate in a small South African village. (And he keeps seeing a homeless guy who looks just like Don DeLillo.) Oh, also, Harry is a passionate Nixon scholar by trade and teaches a class at the local college that no one attends unless under duress. (When I say "passionate," I mean, like when he's undergoing a CAT scan, he mentally reviews Nixon's enemies list to comfort himself. #19 is Paul Newman, by the way.) Then he's approached by the Richard Nixon library - well, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, actually - to covertly assess a collection of dark short stories penned by Tricky Dick. It's all craziness. BUT...

Harry's year in the wilderness is more eye-opening for him than he can at first admit to himself. As he grows and grieves in his own way over the course of this insanity-laced year, we are happily along for the ride, unquestioningly loving the person he becomes on the other side. He gradually - through mishaps and madness - becomes the father he never thought he'd be, to a trio of kids (George's two plus the one orphaned by George in the car accident that started all of this nonsense) who never thought they needed one in the first place - and certainly not one like Harry. And in turn, they all begin to heal together in their wild dogpile of a family - it's the familial ties that bind, after all. It's beautiful and sad, hilarious and heartbreaking. God, I really loved just about every word of this book and I wish more people would just buck up and give it a shot.  

As we are driving home, they all fall asleep in the car. I am alone and awake. Driving up the Henry Hudson parkway to the Saw Mill, I see the glowing eyes of a raccoon staring me down at the edge of the road. It begins to snow - first small white flakes, and then fat ones, the size of doilies under the lamps in Aunt Lillian's house. I open the window; the snow blows into the car, dusting everyone as if with a kind of magical powder.
Buy May We Be Forgiven from your local independent bookstore.

#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables

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