Unsettling 'May We Be Forgiven' not for everyone

AP News
Posted: Sep 26, 2012 5:21 PM
Unsettling 'May We Be Forgiven' not for everyone

"May We Be Forgiven" (Viking), by A.M. Homes

A book that's hard to like but even harder to forget, A.M. Homes' "May We Be Forgiven" is a wild, almost unhinged satire about the toxic relationship between a pair of brothers and the havoc it wreaks in their lives and those of the people they love. It's not for everyone, but adventurous readers who can tolerate its frequent detours into kinky sex and disturbing violence will find buried within an almost uplifting belief in the possibility of redemption.

Harold Silver's brother George is the younger of the two, but people always assume that George — taller and better-looking, wealthier and more successful in his field — is older than Harold. A historian with a specialty in the life and career of Richard Nixon, Harold has always suffered envy for George, a powerful TV network executive who lives with his wife and adolescent children in a ritzy Westchester subdivision.

He's also spent most of his life suffering at the hands of George, an obnoxious bully with a dangerous temper. As "May We Be Forgiven" gets under way, Harold and his wife, Claire, are spending a tense Thanksgiving Day with George and his family. The unhappy family gathering foreshadows a shocking act of brutality by George a few months later that radically alters Harold's life.

Harold is somewhat complicit in George's violent act, and even as he's thrust into new responsibilities for what's left of George's family, he simultaneously watches as his own marriage, career and health all crumble to varying degrees. A lot happens in the just under 500 pages of this novel, and Homes keeps the pages turning swiftly with a blunt writing style and a relentless flair for the absurd.

While it's set firmly in a recognizable present day, there's a fog of unrealism that pervades "May We Be Forgiven." Harold, for the most part frustratingly passive, nevertheless repeatedly stumbles into bizarre sexual encounters and a series of vaguely threatening run-ins with strangers. This aura of random menace gives the book the feel of a (very adult) fairy tale, and like a fairy tale, it also has a finely tuned conscience: As he starts to accept more responsibility in the lives of George's children, Harold begins to acquire a new sense of purpose and definition in a life that he previously drifted through.

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Many readers will likely be shocked or put off by parts of "May We Be Forgiven." The sex and violence that permeate the book at times feel gratuitous, but Homes wants more than to titillate: She's turning a mirror on the tawdriness that comprises so much of our current events and popular culture, and the reflection is not a pleasant one. It's hard to call Harold the "hero" of this story, but by the book's closing pages — for those who make it that far — he almost starts to feel like one.