SINCE HER 1989 debut novel, Jack, written when she was still in her teens, A.M. Homes has gained—or perhaps cultivated—a reputation as an author unafraid to go dark. Examples abound: The End of Alice, about an imprisoned pedophile and his teenaged pen pal; the terrifying In a Country of Mothers, about a shrink who becomes convinced that a patient is actually her long-lost daughter; and the crack-smoking suburbanites of story collection The Safety of Objects.
The darkness in May We Be Forgiven is of a more insidious, less provocative sort. Sure, it opens with a woman getting her head bashed in with a lamp, but that's a mere scene-setter for a frequently harrowing, occasionally hilarious consideration of sex, anxiety, family, and Richard Nixon.
As the novel opens, Harold, a Nixon scholar and college professor, is unhappily married and crushed out on his brother's wife, Jane. When his domineering brother, George, goes nuts and has to be institutionalized, Harold and Jane commence an affair—until George catches them in bed together. Cue lamp head bashing. Jane dies, George goes to rich-person prison, Harold's wife leaves him, and Harold ends up guardian of his niece and nephew, a role he's utterly unfit for.
And that's where the darkness comes in, and where the book really gets started. Harold has no idea how to be a parent—he doesn't even know where the cat food is kept. There's no one around to tell Harold what to do or how to do it, and it's terrifying.
Rather than just create an ordinary set of circumstances and a character who bumbles through them, Homes short-circuits any sense of superiority in readers (readers who might, say, know how to be functioning adults already) by conjuring a world that's uncertain and strange, full of hidden perils and conspiracies and quite possibly not at all worth living, forcing the reader to struggle along with Harold to understand just what it all might mean. Some of it is just weird—a trip to South Africa, the long-lost short stories of Richard Nixon, naked laser tag, a wedding at an old folks' home. (Don DeLillo shows up—Harold thinks he looks homeless—and maybe John Cheever, too.) This is not to suggest there's no plot, or that the story isn't compelling—I couldn't put it down—simply that Homes effectively invites her readers to share Harold's confusion about what life is really all about.
Beyond all the weird shit that happens, Harold's character arc isn't particularly surprising. May We Be Forgiven is explicitly a novel of mid-life crisis: "Looking at myself, my half-spent life," thinks Harold, "I find it unbearable that this is where I have ended up. Is my life over? Did it ever begin?" If you thought Homes' last book was "too sentimental," as some readers did, you might want to skip the new one—go reread that story from The Safety of Objects where a boy fucks a Barbie doll. May We Be Forgiven, for all its pitch-perfect evocation of anxiety and the social disorientation of the digital age, is kind of a sweet book. "I've never made Jell-O before. It's magical," says Harold happily, toward the end of the book, and it feels like a victory: a victory over mean brothers and distant parents, wives who don't love you, and the terrifying lightning bolts of fate that can take away everything you hold dear in an instant. See? Still a little dark.