May We Be Forgiven, A.M. Homes’ 10th novel, starts with a perfectly poisonous metaphor for the decay of the American family: Over an extravagant Thanksgiving dinner in a wealthy suburb, Harry Silver escapes to the kitchen to avoid the barbs from his racist in-laws and his domineering brother George, only to have George’s wife, Jane, attempt to grope him as he leans over the turkey. This evisceration of family togetherness is a narrative dead end; the author of The Safety Of Objects and Music For Torching leaves no one to root for, and with authors from John Cheever to Jonathan Franzen occupying this territory, there’s hardly any new ground to claim.
The series of traumas that befall the Silvers in the next year, beginning with the night a few months later when George goes for a drive and kills two people, doesn’t make the picture any less harsh in retrospect, but it introduces the shift to Homes’ true aim in May We Be Forgiven: not to bury the American family, but to praise it. Through Harry, the weak-spined brother who becomes the family’s legal and figurative head overnight, May We Be Forgiven examines, without wallowing, the call to do the right thing in an indifferent universe.
Homes accompanies Harry through the problems piling up around him, as his wife asks for a divorce and George is institutionalized. He endures drudgery, conveyed by the repetition of dialogue and scenery necessitated by phone calls, supervised visits, and the thankless incremental chores of making life as normal as possible for his niece and nephew. Harry only gets more mired in their problems, while being told he’s reprehensible for doing so. But he bears it with the immediacy and undeniable pulse of his narration documenting his Job-like struggle and how its demands heal him. The work of holding together those broken pieces—not just the family, but also the legal wrangle that develops around George—slowly transforms him.
Once Homes calls up Harry’s voice, her built-up scorn for his early efforts is released instead on the systems that failed his family and the ineffectual coping strategies he uses to distract himself from his grief and guilt, from online dating to his long-gestating book on how President Nixon was misunderstood. This is the satiric yeast leavening Homes’ dense brick of tragedy, and it adds a welcome taste as the Silver family’s new reality takes shape. May We Be Forgiven has the guts to make them, imperfect and guilty as they are, carry on with life while meeting a string of people who (like George) find ways not to be held responsible for theirs. Having dismantled one family over holiday dinner, Homes scripts the chronicle of the next year into a call for all families, even those as fractured as the Silvers, to move in closer to each other—the nastiness of the world serving as a shelter against future misfortune.