Monday, February 02, 2009

This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes


In an attempt to break out of the misery which my current, enforced close-reading of Cormac McCarthy has induced, I thought I would turn my attention to AM Homes. A dangerous idea, you might imagine, given Homes’ reputation for challenging subject matter. I well remember the fuss that attended the publication of The End of Alice, a novel about a murdering paedophile: I was a stock librarian at the time and argued robustly – and successfully – with my management that librarians are not censors and we had a duty to buy the book, only to find that the first person to request it was a former national celebrity who was now living in rural obscurity after a high-profile paedophilia court case. That left a bit of a taste in my mouth, and I’ve never really been able to figure out how I feel about it.

But I was advised that This Book Will Save Your Life was something quite different. And so it is, an absolute treat of a book, very funny but profoundly moving at the same time. In some respects it operates in the same territory as McCarthy – people in extremis, the way we connect, the randomness of it all – but it comes to an entirely different, more satisfying and more credible conclusion: that is, human beings, despite their general and individual faults, are capable in the end of absolute decency. The title, This Book Will Save Your Life, is tongue-in-cheek, but there remains an element of truth about it: we all can change our lives, if we so choose, and individual choice and collective need do not necessarily have to conflict. Jock Tamson’s bairns can prevail.

Richard Novak is an outwardly successful man whose life begins to fall apart. We join him as he calls 911 following the onset of an unexplained and inexplicable illness. It might be a heart attack. It might be psychosomatic. It might be existential. Whichever, it sets in train a series of adventures that change his life. In quick succession he meets a coterie of odd, damaged, hopeful new acquaintances, each of them seeking only to live the way they want to live – the American dream, as it were, in all its scale, and its heights and depths of ambition. There is Anhil, the immigrant donut-shop owner who sees America as the promised land. There is Cynthia, who Richard meets while shopping and who breaks down over the grocery counter, before fleeing from her selfish and self-obsessed family in order to discover herself. There is his neighbour, the famous film star. There is his new neighbour, the reclusive Nic, who knows famous people (Bob Dylan pays a visit) and is finally revealed to be a very famous writer from the sixties. There is his doctor, a ‘psychological intern’, a strange and apparently wise man who is ultimately revealed as a fraud. And a nutritionist, a masseuse, a personal sports instructor, and so on…

And as well as these new acquaintances there are the regular features of Richard’s life, including his long-serving housekeeper, his ex-wife and, most importantly, but most elusively, his teenage son, Ben. This latter relationship becomes the pivotal point of the novel and, as it progresses, all the surreal, inventive humour is gradually and skilfully elided until we have a single focus on these two damaged, needy individuals and their quest for mutual redemption.

Along the way, Homes delivers an effective satire on modern LA life, that shallow and self-centred lifestyle that is – literally – sinking into ruin. At the same time as his mysterious attack, an unexplained hole appears outside his house, threatening to swallow it up. The hole becomes a symbol of the vacuity of their existence, of the emptiness of Richard’s life. It becomes a cause celebre when it swallows a stray horse, which is then rescued by Ricahrd and the enigmatic film-star neighbour. Richard is acclaimed a hero, a status which is reinforced later when he rescues a woman from the trunk of a car as she is being abducted. One mad event follows on from another. Be assured: nothing is normal in this novel, nothing is predictable.

Indeed, it could all have descended into a picaresque mess, just one humorous setpiece after another, but Homes is too skilful a writer for that. It is the introduction of Ben, the deeply unhappy son, that acts as the catalyst for the reaffirmation of the human spirit which is at the root of this novel. Richard left his family while Ben was a toddler and in the intervening years has found ways not to get in touch. Father and son are, therefore, strangers, but each has a gnawing need for the other, one for the love of a father and the other for the love of a son, the depth of which gradually becomes increasingly obvious, so that not even these two damaged souls can any longer deny it. A furious, cathartic argument at Disneyland is followed by a shocking, angry, painful scene in Richard’s house when he returns unforgivably late after being out on a date. The truth is out, and truth can be a painful commodity. Richard, who has carefully fabricated an alternative world, is suddenly embroiled in reality, and there is no escape. Nor does he want to escape. Such, of course, is life, in all its unpredictable uncertainty.

Homes calls This Book Will Save Your Life her ‘post 9/11 novel.’ She asks: ‘how does one maintain hope in a time that is often not very hopeful?’ By setting the novel in LA, that city of dreams, she tries to answer her own question: connection, she says, only connect. And that is what Richard tries to do, in his own flawed way. He uses money in lieu of thanks, lavishing gifts on his housekeeper and son because it is easier to do so than to actually talk to them in any meaningful way. He has literally no memory of his childhood. He tries – repeatedly but abjectly – to connect with his parents, his brother, his ex-wife. It is ironic that the one person he does connect with, his reclusive but ultra-famous neighbour Nic, likes Richard so much precisely because Richard is so out of touch with reality he is probably the only person in the world who doesn’t know who he is.

All of the above may sound grim, but it is anything but. This book is tremendous fun. It has amazing zest and brio. Its cast of characters, even the flawed ones, are attractive human beings, and through the surreality of the manic plot there is a genuine warmth and tenderness. If one wants an antidote to the gross anti-humanism and misogyny of Cormac McCarthy, This Story Will Save Your Life is the perfect answer.

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