The family that runs much of the action and is cobbled together in A.M. Homes’s new novel, May We Be Forgiven, sounds like one from television’s Modern Family. “Dad” is Harry, an uncle who has custody of his niece and nephew; an orphaned Hispanic boy is tossed into the mix, and an elderly couple fills in as grandparents. The central event that throws all these people together is an accident.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, George (Harry’s younger brother and a successful television executive) kills a husband and wife in a car accident. George has come apart, and he is sent to a series of mental facilities to recuperate. Brother Harry is given charge of the two children, Nathaniel (Nate) and Ashley. Torn by guilt, Nate insists that they also adopt Ricardo, the boy who was orphaned as a result of the accident.
Up until the accident, Harry led a pretty conventional life as a professor of history hard at work on a book about Richard M. Nixon. Harry’s marriage to his over-achieving Chinese American wife, Claire, falls apart when he adopts his new role as surrogate parent.
What follows is a wild look at modern American life in all its sad delusions. Homes, who has always had a knack for dark humor, is again in top form here. As Harry’s life slowly changes shape into something entirely unfamiliar, the novel also ends with a ray of hope for the new path he launches himself and his family on. While there are many parts of May We Be Forgiven that work really well as a glimpse into a slice of our society, there are yet others which come across as a tad implausible. Harry’s slow additions to his family--his taking in of Ricardo merely because his nephew likes the idea, seems hard to believe. Same deal with the elderly couple left behind in his house -- the way in which Harry accepts charge of this abandoned husband and wife seems a little too unreal. Homes does trace the arc of Harry’s character growth pretty well, though, and you end up rooting for his success, at least in the parenting department.
Homes’s dark humor skewers contemporary society extremely well, and she has a sharp eye for the many ways in which we present our failings. “Despite our best efforts, we will always do harm to others and ourselves,” Harry says. So it is that there are random sexual encounters totally devoid of meaning, children left to drift by parents who should know better, and everybody trying to find some anchor and meaning to their seemingly inane lives. Homes comes down pretty hard on all of us, showing us just how vacuous our daily existence has become.
We mistake almost anything for a relationship, a community of sorts, and yet, when we are with our families, in our communities, we are clueless, we short-circuit and immediately dive back into the digitized version -- it’s easier, because we can be both our truer selves and our fantasy selves all at once, with each carrying equal weight. While the novel works to shine light on contemporary society’s many problems, after a while the unrelenting doom and gloom gets draining. Homes does try to lift our spirits somewhat at the end, but given all that precedes it, this happy ending seems pat and a little out of place.
“What do you have to cry about? You are a big white guy with a big house,” says one of the characters to Harry. At the end of some harsh navel-gazing, the reader might well ask this metaphorical question out loud. Given as how Thanksgiving bookends this novel on both sides, you realize that amid all the madness, there’s actually much to be thankful about.