Are We There Yet?

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home BY LORRIE MOORE. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 208 PAGES. $27.

The cover of I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home

LORRIE MOORE’S NEW NOVEL STARTS TWICE. The first chapter is a letter from one sister to another, an old one, probably, because who writes letters anymore and I don’t even know what a “desk cartonnier” is but it sounds old. I can’t quite place the year or state but the period and region are clear: the Reconstruction South. “I have also sent Harry some old rebel coins for pounding into cufflinks,” our narrator, an innkeeper named Elizabeth, writes, as if to say, There will be no Confederate relics in my lodge. Canadian coins, oddly enough, circulate, but one senses that Elizabeth is speaking of more than those when she writes: “All is tradable somewhere because we live in a forgotten way in some corner of the beginning of the end of the beginning. I don’t know who I really mean by ‘we.’ But it does seem this place has been handed some moment in history then grown fearful and impulsive about hanging on to it. A useless lunge. Sinful even. A good scalawag sticks to her diary.”

At the end of this beginning one figures that Moore, long an incisive chronicler of contemporary life, has embarked on a bona fide historical novel. To an extent, she has. History buffs will be glad to see this particular moment described with the same linguistic precision that Moore brings to the present. Consider “scalawag.” Originally reserved for emaciated cattle, the term got a makeover in the wake of the Civil War, when Southern Democrats slung it at white Southerners who—whether for private gain (yeoman farmers who wished not to return to serfdom) or for egalitarian ideals (radical Southern Republicans)—supported Reconstruction. Its use here is not lip service to verisimilitude but a kind of inside joke. “Good scalawag” is an oxymoron insofar as it is not clear what immediate social good comes from writing in a diary. Diary? So it isn’t quite a letter. It won’t be posted, anyway. Elizabeth, we realize, is writing to the dead.

Even in nineteenth-century garb, Moore’s style is unmistakable: assonant, adjectival, alliterative, witheringly aromantic, geopolitically attuned, at once lyrical and laid back. “I have a vague affection for him,” writes Elizabeth of one of her lodgers, “which is not usable enough for marriage.” Of desire, she writes, “Oh, yes, I say to the darting thing, the fluff of a dandelion clock or a milkweed puff: I sort of remember you.” Of domestic chores: “I have reached a tiredness with the housekeeping and so the whole place has lost its spank.” Has a long-dead diarist ever sounded so alive? The history buffs are looking up “spank” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Hoo-ee, are they in for a surprise.

The second chapter leaps forward a hundred and fifty years and a few hundred miles north. We shift into a close third-person view of a middle-aged high school history teacher named Finn. He’s driving into the Bronx, where his brother Max is dying of cancer. While Finn racks his brain for things to talk about, a cat’s litter box slides around in the back seat, courtesy of his landlady, who asked him, without explanation, to get rid of it on his way out of Illinois (“Any trash bin will do. Just drive away quickly. I don’t know the precise regulations”). Finn ruminates. He’s “trying to mull moments into anecdotes” to amuse his brother. “But they should not make the dying laugh in a way that made them want more of life. The dying should laugh wearily in a way that said, OK. OK. Enough.” His rehearsal proves useless. When he arrives, he and Max talk about Finn’s sorrows, chiefly his ex, Lily. It is the sort of ironic reversal Moore revels in: Finn, who has come to console his brother, is consoled by him. “I feel sorry for you, man,” Max says. Finn, incredulously: “You feel sorry for me.”

Somewhere along the way in Finn’s first chapter, which spans eighty pages, we begin to wonder where Elizabeth, whose opening letter lasts only ten, has gone. It takes a while to realize that, in shifting to Finn, Moore has not just leaped through time, she has altered its fabric. When Finn shows up at Max’s bedside, their conversation alone lasts thirty pages—a good chunk of the novel. Even readers who fancy themselves patient may start to think, Well, it’s been nice, but shouldn’t this, you know, get a move on? Isn’t there supposed to be some sad music and we pour our hearts out and you look at me then look out the window and drift off?

For any writer, the elongated scene is a high-wire act; a gust of boredom can knock her, and by extension the reader, off balance. But the slowness here acts against boredom by extending our discomfort. Dying, Moore suggests, is an awkward, dragged-out thing. It is a process, a procession long and irrelevant until one or one’s beloved is called to the stage.

Whatever Finn’s success in telling stories that make the dying laugh wearily, Moore makes us wish for life—the life of the scene, and so the life of the book—to go on forever. Her figurative powers are astounding. Max has “the smooth hue of an apricot. He was a manila envelope getting ready to be mailed.” Finn misses Lily “like a dog, not seeing colors, chasing his own sepia-colored tail, sepia because it was all in the past, one’s own tail when chasing it, was in the past, but hey that’s where everything he wanted was.” He and his brother speak in jokes, blunders, foil hat theories, and aphorisms: “For an event to be real,” Finn says, “it has to have that strange imperfection and contradiction that gives it reality.” Rushing beneath the surface of their encounter is regret. (“For the rest of his life [Finn] could begin every sentence with Regrettably and never tell a lie.”) Finn lapses; Max holds him steady:

“Were there things we should have done as brothers that we didn’t do?”

“It’ll be OK,” said Max.

“Things we should have said?” Perhaps Finn was becoming embarrassing. “Did we say them?”

“Yeah, mostly. Man, there’s a ball game here.”

When it ends, the very scene that made us ask Is it over yet? makes us say Wait, already? As with Max, so with Lily, a professional clown who has lived forever on the brink of ending her life. While Finn is away, she kills herself. He drives back to Illinois—crashing without serious injury to self or car along the way—and visits her grave, where he finds her aboveground, smiling at him with a mouth full of dirt. Her undeadness is casually fantastic and comes at the novel’s halfway point, as if merely the next link in a chain of events. Finn and Lily set off on a road trip to a forensic farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she really wanted to be buried. I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, as it turns out, is a road novel. “Are we there yet?” Lily asks. Time unspools like the long belt of highway before them. “Where are we?” Lily asks. They talk. They sort of hash things out. They have car sex. They’re going the distance.

Lily’s resurrection is an experiment in grief: even if our dead could come back, they wouldn’t be able to say what they hadn’t been able to say. “But why Jack of all people?” Finn asks Lily on their drive—Jack being the one she left him for. Lily answers at a slant:

“You’re not being that nice to me,” she said. She was fragrant. A whiff of truffle and marsh. It moved him.

“Forgive me,” said Finn, “but as I drive along this highway, with trucks passing me, then me passing them, I’ve yet to achieve overview as to who we were to each other.”

“We were each other to each other. Not everyone can say that.”

Finn, for his part, still can’t be honest with Lily, whose death has haunted him for a decade: “So many times she had forced him to imagine her dead. All the images he had fashioned—hanging in the garage by a rope, or in the closet by three belts buckled together—all these had deformed his mind.” Moore pushes Finn’s psychology into a provocative frankness; for all his sympathy (for all his being moved by Lily’s stench), he is also capable of resenting her to the point of secretly egging her on: “Nor would he tell her how furious he was at her for her death nor how through the years prior there had been moments he had wished she would just get it over with and go ahead and not mull so dramatically and create all that dread in him. He would not tell her how she had worn him down any number of times until he had thought, Well, just die then, if that’s what you need.” Again the reversal: the very thing Finn privately wished for, when realized, infuriates him.

Tala Madani, The Primitive, 2015, oil on linen, 18 × 16". Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery
Tala Madani, The Primitive, 2015, oil on linen, 18 × 16″. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery

The comedy of the novel’s pacing is only heightened by its eventual return—so delayed as to give a jolt—to Elizabeth. She is there on the other side of Finn’s chapter after all, right where she left off: managing the inn, grieving her sister, fielding the so-called gentleman lodger’s intensifying advances. Cut to Finn. Cut to Elizabeth. And so forth until the end. If the narrative threads of I Am Homeless are intertwined, one is a shoestring and the other a rope. I am tempted to ask why and just as tempted to ask why not. 

Maybe the more interesting question has to do not with the size of each thread but their tightness. I Am Homeless is loose. One reads Finn’s thread wondering how Elizabeth’s will affect him, or (such a thing could happen in this novel) vice versa. There is indeed some overlap: Finn finds Elizabeth’s notebook while staying at an inn—the inn—with Lily. After their departure, the narrator discloses that Finn has stolen the notebook though not why or what he makes of it. In the space of that silence, readers can imagine the cause for Finn’s fascination: the history (elsewhere, the mere thought of Abraham Lincoln’s death brings tears to Finn’s eyes), the portrait of another person grieving her sibling’s death, or the presence of certain coincidences (the gentleman lodger’s name is also Jack). Still, from a narrator who otherwise hews very close to Finn’s psyche, this silence invites speculation.

It isn’t just Finn one wonders about. In the absence of tight narrative twining, the brain’s associative muscle takes charge: What about 1871, the novel seems to ask, resonates with the last days of 2016? When Elizabeth speaks of a divided nation being handed a moment in history and chickening out—when she speaks of a “useless lunge”—she, or the novel, is also speaking to us, or “us.” To the extent that I Am Homeless is a novel of personal grief, then, it is also a novel of national grief, Moore’s lament for the United States, against the rightward backswing Obama’s presidency precipitated, or the promises his administration failed to keep. At once a swan song and an imperative: well, just die then, if that’s what you need.

I find myself initially iffy about the Civil War–era parallel, which, for all its historical aptness, has perhaps been drawn enough to lose its spank. But Moore is no didact or nostalgist, and if she’s reading a eulogy for the American Experiment, she’s standing on its grave while she does so, in Lily’s clown shoes. If Finn is getting crapped on by capitalism, it’s on Grand Central Parkway, where “eighteen-wheelers, fulfillment by Amazon, lurked in Finn’s blind spot then passed violently on the right, splattering mud on his windshield, which he smeared and smudged and dimmed with the wipers on their frantic high speed as well as the squirters with their buoyant blue spritz.” His venture into the United States’ intestinal tract is no pastoral reverie; at one point, he stumbles upon what appears to be a literal content farm.

Perhaps death in I Am Homeless is a decoy. The novel’s preoccupation with time—which Finn considers “a strange ocean through which we imagined we were swimming rather than understanding we were being randomly tossed”—is baked into its form. We think we are swimming through Moore’s prose, admiring its glimmering moments, but we are really being tossed about, made to experience the simultaneous protractedness and abruptness of endings—those of loved ones, of country. Dying, it turns out, takes forever and no time at all.

Angelo Hernandez-Sias’s latest story appears in this summer’s issue of The Drift.