Almost three years ago, I stumbled across and read A.M. Homes most controversial book, The End of Alice. Although I found it to be one of those books written with the intent to be shocking, I did find Homes writing alluring. She has a great way of stacking the tension and using it to play out some absolutely crazy ideas. And May We Be Forgiven is the epitome of these ideas.
The opening 20-odd pages alone are totally bonkers.
This makes more sense when you consider that the first chapter started out as a short story and was featured in Granta’s 100th issue back in 2007. Subsequently, it was selected by Salman Rushdie for The Best American Short Stories 2008.
From here, Homes began to develop the characters further, fleshing it out into a full-blown novel.
Please Forgive Us
Harold Silver, a Nixon-scholar and historian, is the younger brother of George. Despite Harry looking out for his sibling most of his life, George is taller, more intelligent and more successful. With his beautiful wife, two kids, extensive house in the suburbs and a convertible car, there’s nothing he doesn’t have.
But Harry also understands that George has an explosive temper. And when he loses it at the scene of a traffic accident, it’s up to Harry to clean up.
He’s abruptly expected to play parent to George’s kids, navigate life’s pitfalls, and help keep the family together. This leads him on an often tricky road; through internet dating, school sports days and caring for the aged. He is here simply because of biology and through no choice of his own – yet he feels George still has a grip on him, even when he’s no longer around.
Despite an extraordinary start, I did find the first hundred pages to be a bit of a drag. I didn’t expect so many characters to be thrown at me in the introduction phase – maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for a serious family saga (as I thought it was going).
However, this tone quickly switched to a fast-paced balls-to-the-wall style which is difficult to hate.
The language throughout is harsh and explosive yet incredibly easy to read. There’s an obvious comparison to Philip Roth’s style given the Jewish connections, especially with American Pastoral.
Equally, Thomas Harris uses the notion of horror in his Hannibal series, whereas Roth and Homes often use sexual explicitness to break the reader’s flow – shocking you into thinking about what’s occurring.
It does also serve to add a strange voyeuristic allure to the language.
The American Nightmare
May We Be Forgiven is a deep look at the unhappy American. The man who aspires for everything; the suburban lifestyle, the trophy wife, and golfing holidays with colleagues – And in this case, that’s precisely the role George plays.
Yet, in his desperation for the same, Harry is left on the outside wondering what life must is like on the other side of the white picket fence.
The critical thing to remember, though, is that there are many ways to achieving this dream. And when you do get there, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy.
I know, it’s a little too goody-goody to be profound, but that’s how Homes presents a lot of these moral conundrums.
Despite this greater than good message, the story does serve to capture the darker perimeters of life. Often comical but always building tension, Homes isn’t afraid to push the novel towards darker territories.
Here there’s Internet Hook-ups (which serves to introduce a few fascinating characters), plots of kidnapping, along with several incidents of physical violence.
All by Myself
Nonetheless, most pungent is Harold’s greatest threat – Isolation.
With his wife divorcing him, he stands to lose all companionship he ever felt. This could be why he attaches himself so closely to the philosophies of Richard Nixon. After all, Nixon is a president that had to deal with the harsh realities of his own seclusion from society.
Making high-powered decisions every day will create a certain level of separation. This, along with, in 1972 entering into the first arms-limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, and the Watergate scandal that drove him out of office in 1974, did little to repair these bonds.
Nixon was a tough character who wouldn’t hesitate to cut corners, undermine opposition or engage in dirty tactics. It’s here that the similarities between both Richard Nixon and George begin to appear.
By spending his life studying the former President, and the only one to ever resign from office, Harold is looking to understand further how these people begin to function in society. Whereas Nixon was an introvert, he and George both clearly employ bullying tactics to get their way.
I really enjoyed reading May We Be Forgiven. Off the back of a terrible The End of Alice, I wasn’t expecting such a frantic journey through the American dream, nor for it to be as engaging.
Sure, the satire feels a little stale in 2021, given that the majority of those satirised are now dead. But the wild events and crazy characters more than makeup for that.
Although the scenarios Harold finds himself in are completely chaotic, and the characters around him seem to want nothing less than destruction, the book remains fun in a silly sort of way. Sure, this discredits the social commentary and serious undertones, but this book would be nothing more than average without them.
I think Theo Tait puts it best for his review in the Guardian, ‘you’d have to have no sense of the absurd, and no sense of humour, not to be pretty impressed.’