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Originally published Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 5:36 AM

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'May We Be Forgiven': tough times and atonement in suburbia

A.M. Homes' "May We Be Forgiven" imagines a plagues-of-Job series of events that descend upon a man, forcing him to wrestle with accidental death, murder, infidelity and other issues. Homes reads Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

A.M. Homes

The author of "May We Be Forgiven" will appear at 8 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600;
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'May We Be Forgiven'

by A.M. Homes

Viking, 480 pp., $26.95

John Cheever and Richard Yates are often cited as the writers A.M. Homes appropriates in her fiction.

But comparing those midcentury prophets of suburban despair to the hyperbolic Homes is like equating a jeweler's mallet to a sledgehammer. Her novels ram through the veneer of civility to expose the leaden lives of all who realize money doesn't buy happiness but are darned if we can figure out what does.

Case in point: Homes' latest book, "May We Be Forgiven," which is launched when George Silver, highflying TV executive and lifelong bully, runs a red light and kills two people in a minivan. Leaving the hospital after the accident, he returns home to find his wife, Jane, in bed with his brother. So he bashes in her head.

Jane ends up in the morgue, and George in the loony bin.

Suddenly Harry, the not-so-innocent brother and the book's narrator, steps front and center. Until then, Harry's life has been rather tidy and bloodless (in both figurative and literal terms). He is childless, with a career-minded, Chinese-American wife who's a caricature of Asian efficiency. Meanwhile, Harry's work as a historian, with a special focus on Richard Nixon, has the same air of cold remove.

George's murderous act changes all that. Harry takes charge of his brother's spacious home, his teenage son, his 11-year-old daughter, his diarrhea-prone dog, even the surviving child of the couple killed in his brother's car accident. He juggles the scandal that ejects his niece from boarding school and lines up his nephew's desired bar mitzvah in Africa.

On the side, Harry fits in Internet sex, keeps up with Mom at the nursing home and even puts a hand in the international arms trade. To say that he's getting in the game, albeit reluctantly, is an understatement.

The problem with all these events is that they feel so random. This book, Homes' 10th, is as ambitious as any she's written. Her trademarks — terse dialogue, dark humor and a realism that makes sex seem gynecological and romance a throwback to the '50s — are the ties that bind. Yet there's the hint that these tools are being stretched beyond their limits.

Perhaps that's where Nixon comes in, although it's debatable whether the former president can handle the weight of the role Homes assigns him. More than any other subject besides Harry himself, Nixon offers unifying structure to the novel: He is not only the ghost Harry constantly compares himself to but also subject of his book in progress, which not incidentally bears the tentative title, "While We Were Sleeping — the American Dream Turned Nightmare."

"He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future," Harry reflects about his muse, "wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all."

This sums up the aspirational society Homes has long observed with a cruel eye. In "May We Be Forgiven," what's most surprising is how much empathy she shows for those caught in its maw — particularly the hapless Harry, a latter-day Chauncey Gardner whose actions on behalf of his family make him seem heroic.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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