In 1980, the New Statesman held a contest to determine the world's most improbable book title; the winning entry was "My Struggle by Martin Amis." The punch line was probably more amusing at the time than it is today, but even if the joke had lost none of its original impact, "This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes" might still provide formidable competition.
After all, Homes's work isn't exactly what one would call uplifting. She's made her name with dark, often very disturbing fiction—ferociously intelligent, inky-black novels and stories rich in mordant humor that challenge convention, both literary and social. Her oeuvre includes The End of Alice, an eroticized portrait of a pedophilic murderer that manages to be authentically shocking rather than merely sensational; the thrilleresque In a Country of Mothers, in which a therapist and her client, who may also be birth mother and daughter, become obsessed with each other; and Music for Torching, Homes's renowned upending of genteel suburban literary tradition, featuring a pair of yuppie parents run amok. In a seditious rage against middle-class mores, the two try to burn their own house down, go on a crack binge, carry on scandalous affairs, and generally wreak havoc on the leafy sanctity of Wapshot country.
It would appear, then, that the title of Homes's latest novel is ironic, the first sally in another deft and savage assault on contemporary culture and those who succumb to its anesthetizing siren song. Except, as near as I can tell, it's not. And the book itself is . . . well, uplifting.
This Book Will Save Your Life is a picaresque of sorts, chronicling the adventures of Richard Novak, a retired stockbroker who lives alone in one of the more exclusive canyons of upper Beverly Hills. A former New Yorker, Richard has been divorced for over a decade from his workaholic ex-wife, who "runs a company that publishes life-style and self-improvement books, books that tell you how to live," and with whom he is still in love; she lives in Manhattan with their son, Ben—a toddler when Richard left and now a teen he hardly knows. With his every physical requirement attended to by housekeeper, fitness trainer, nutritionist, masseuse, Richard "needed no one, knew no one, was not a part of anyone's life. He'd so thoroughly removed himself from the world of dependencies and obligations, he wasn't sure he still existed."
But one summer evening, after not leaving his house for twenty-four days straight, Richard suffers a seizure of pain with an existential twist—perhaps a Homesian "heart" attack: "Had the pain just started, or was it always there and he was just now noticing? . . . Every blood vessel, every nerve, every fiber in his body folded in on itself, as though starved, parched . . . and the strangest thing was he didn't know where it hurt, he couldn't feel anything." In the emergency room, unsure whether he'll leave alive, Richard realizes he has no one to call, not a single person outside his coterie of caretakers with whom he has anything like a relationship. At dawn the next day, he returns home to discover that a sinkhole has appeared beside his house, a mysterious and deepening depression in the earth, which under the circumstances can't but suggest a grave.
These intimations of mortality shock Richard out of his circumspect routine. Quicker than you can say "only connect," he begins to engage, almost involuntarily, with everyone he encounters, including the garrulous Hindu owner of a doughnut shop he visits on his way home from the emergency room; the housewife he finds crying in the produce section of a grocery store; the not-so-bright but menschy movie star who lives on his street; a pot-smoking insurance rep; the land works–department employee who comes to survey the sinkhole and returns with a screenplay for Richard to read; a one-breasted Gyrotonics instructor; the "psychological internist" Richard is sent to when his regular doctor is unavailable, who prescribes a meditation retreat on transcending suffering; and, finally,
a famous novelist/screenwriter, sort of a Pynchon-meets-Kesey type, living incognito in Malibu, where Richard winds up when the sinkhole destabilizes his house. All this adds up to a veritable Baedeker of LA's sundry inhabitants.
The further Richard ventures back into the world, and out into the city, the more he wants to be a part of it all: "He wants to be more, do more. And he wants to feel better. He wants to be heroic, larger than life—rescue people from burning buildings, leap over rooftops. And he wants people to notice him. . . . How does a middle-aged Joe become anything, much less a superhero?" Ask and ye shall receive, Homes seems, with uncharacteristic benevolence, to answer. In rapid succession, Richard saves a neighbor girl's horse from the sinkhole, provides moral support that enables the crying housewife to leave her abusive marriage, rescues a woman from the trunk of her kidnapper's car, adopts a stray dog, and gains such a reputation as a local Good Samaritan that late-night television shows make jokes about him and 911 operators call to check in when they haven't heard from him for a few days.
It's all great fun until someone gets hurt—and Homes is and always has been interested in emotional damage: how it gets done, what it looks like in action, whether it can be recovered from or repaired. Thus Richard's adventures, which have an antic, epic, and highly enjoyable Bloomsday quality, are merely a prelude to a confrontation with his estranged son, Ben, whose summer road trip brings him to Richard's doorstep.
This is a return to well-traveled Homesian territory: the relationship of abandoned child and absent parent—the abandonment and the absence sometimes actual, sometimes emotional—appears time and again in her work, from her first novel, Jack, to the gripping story "Remedy" in her last collection, Things You Should Know. In this novel, however, Homes heads in a direction she hasn't before: toward the possibility of true resolution.
After several weeks of sometimes polite, sometimes agonizingly passive-aggressive encounters, Richard and Ben face off in a pair of nervy, bravura sequences. In the first, they spend a day at Disneyland. Between rides, Ben lobs questions and accusations about his parents' divorce and his father's departure. "It feels like an interrogation, like the kid is going to spin him around and around until it all falls out," but the day ends in a truce, albeit an exhausted, equivocal one.
In the second sequence, Richard returns home late from a date and finds Ben waiting up for him. Furious and very drunk, Ben launches an attack that is also a confession and a plea. "It's your fault I'm gay, that I go around trying to get men to pay attention to me. . . . Whenever I was mad at you I would go out and give an old guy a blow job; that was my way of getting back." Ben then offers to fuck his father, humps his leg like a dog, pulls down his own pants and presents his ass for sodomizing, rants and raves, and finally runs out of the house, telling Richard, "Want to see what it's like not knowing if someone's ever coming back?" Richard chases him down the beach until at last, after a clumsy wrestling match in the sand, Ben passes out in his father's arms, a California pietà. The acts of atonement aren't over yet, but for Homes's longtime readers in particular, this is a profoundly gratifying moment: At last, she is able to tender the closure that has until now eluded her characters.
Ultimately, the book's message about transformation, connection, and redemption is sincerely meant. But while Homes offers an antidote to the alienating, apocalyptic Los Angeles seen in films like Magnolia and Crash and novels such as Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero and Dana Spiotta's Lightning Field, she isn't positing the city as a cusp of utopia, a place where we could all just get along, à la Rodney King, if only Angelenos would hop out of their cars and embrace one another in brotherly love. As usual, she's writing mostly about white, upper-middle-class people with white, upper-middle-class problems; Richard deals with many of his predicaments by throwing money at them, and his resurrection takes place in those parts of the city that most outsiders think of when they think of Los Angeles—relatively tiny, homogenous enclaves in a vast and diverse city—where million-dollar homes are considered modest and the underprivileged drive Audis. Homes is too smart to pretend otherwise, or that this is the case for everyone. At one point, Richard buys a homeless man breakfast and then, as the man departs, makes the mistake of bidding him a nice day. The man turns around. "Have a nice day. I'm homeless. What does that mean, ‘have a nice day'? Go fuck yourself." After all, this is the real world; change is possible, but it involves conflict and pain. And there's optimism, Homes style: "They are together, there for each other as much as they can bear to be, and though it might not be the fullness that one wants, though it might not be enough, it is something, it is more than nothing."
Darcy Cosper contributes frequently to Bookforum and edits the online edition of the literary journal Swink.