A.M. Homes has always been the salty bag of snacks I can’t resist even if it makes me feel a bit queasy. I say this, as an unabashed and hopelessly devoted binger. What hooked me early on was her unvarnished fearlessness, her startlingly refreshing honesty, her willingness to unsettle the reader. Her wit and precision and the pitch, pitch dark of her humor. Her iconic voice, at turns provocative and lurid and absurd and hilarious and poignant, is always whip-smart and timely. Recently, I reread The Safety of Objects and realized with an embarrassing clarity the extent of her influence. (Would I have written a collection called Doll Palace if it weren’t for her story A Real Doll? And where would any of my Jerks be without the notorious Homes couple, Paul and Elaine?)
When I was considering an MFA, a GQ colleague gave me The End of Alice, whose ferocity made Lolita look like a lullaby. Swiftly, I moved on to Music for Torching only to be disemboweled by its eerily prescient violent end. From there, I set my heart on The New School where Homes was teaching at the time. (She left the semester I started.) This Book WIll Save Your Life saved me on countless, interminable breastfeeding sessions, the hardcover wedged between the Boppy pillow and my son’s sweaty head, and May We Be Forgiven alleviated a terrible bout of postpartum, which is to say: Homes is a writer who has been there for me, whose work has been extremely instrumental, and who I’ve been chasing for most of my adult life. Which is to say my expectations are sky-high.
I started The Unfolding on a flight to Greece with the selfish hope of escape: Roe had been overturned days before, an inevitability written on a wall widely ignored. The Jan. 6 trials were unveiling outrageous, enraging, yet unsurprising details of what we already sensed to be true. I finished reading the morning after the Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park.
I share all of this because context matters. Because my frustration with The Unfolding has everything to do with simply, desperately, craving a break from the tantrums and revenge ploys of old white men—a reprieve Homes denied me. The book, which imagines an underground band of bros coming together in the wake of Obama’s 2008 win to plot a rich, white reclamation of power, has been called prescient. But it doesn’t feel prescient. Billed as satire, The Unfolding doesn’t feel satirical. What it feels like is a mirror. Cracked and ugly and magnifying the dire state of our country.
Similarities are blatant. The Big Guy vehemently believes in “being able to eat in the same restaurant no matter what city you are in and have the food taste exactly the same,” like a certain ketchup throwing Mar-a-Lago local. When he spews, “Someone needs to grab this country by the balls and wake it the hell up,” we are triggered by what else has been grabbed.
Art, as they say, is an imitation of life, etc. When McCain loses, billionaire Republican and family man, aka The Big Guy, organizes a ragtag coterie of filthy rich misfits called the Forever Men. One dude posits cherry picking lifetime appointments to the federal courts. Another drums up the misinformation age when he’s not concocting “ball water,” i.e. weed steeped bourbon. Someone named the general says, “You create the bullshit and then you spread it.” On a hunting retreat the judge says, “if I don’t kill something soon, I’m gonna die,” and then they blow off the wigged mannequin heads belonging to The Big Guy’s wife.
Funny, sure. But it all felt too close and too soon.
The book is a study of white privilege, a reminder not only of the insidious power structure undermining our democracy, but at its very origin and root. The problem is, these bros, who consider aprons “feminizing,” are cast largely as bumbling buffoons, when in reality, they are lethal.
To be fair, so is Homes’ humor. Few writers deadpan like:
“The big guy asks his wife, ‘Did you sleep well?’
‘Like a corpse,’ she says.”
Yet I couldn’t help but feel that Homes, who built her career around risk, played it safe by merely holding up that mirror. These blowhards, they talk and they talk. For pages and pages. Even the Big Guy grows impatient with all the egos. “Try herding cats who each have a certain male need to dominate” – and you get the idea.
Of course, not all is well in The Big Guy’s home. “Turns out the idea of a perfect family is like the idea of the American dream—it’s all a fantasy, a story we tell ourselves so we can feel good.” His wife, who’s “the size of a matchbook but holds her liquor well,” winds up in rehab yearning for an unlived life, while their 18-year-old horse girl of a daughter starts to realize things are not what they seem—shocker—and the world is far more fucked up and complicated than her boarding school life has led her to believe. All three find themselves at an existential crossroads. And yet, with all the stories out there vying for our attention, it’s tough to muster the bandwidth to invest in this ridiculously cushy family’s plights, no matter how sharply parodied.
One of Homes’ theses is that the same rhetoric uttered through different ideological mouthpieces can have diametrically opposite effects. It’s an incisive point deftly woven, but, rhetoric is rhetoric, which can be…fatiguing. Where was her signature subversion? I hungered for schadenfreude, poetic justice, for the Forever Men to go down in some explosive cook den of fire. I should know better: Homes is not here for your morality.
The thing about timely books is timing. If I were to open The Unfolding in a couple months instead of back in June, when we’re starting to feel (dare I say it?) a shifting tide, I might have a different take. Certainly, should a certain orange, classified-robbing Big Guy be charged and convicted, this whole dramedy would feel Oh So Sweet. But for now, its purported “unpredictability” lands like deja vu. Not only have we all been here before, this is exactly where we are. Which only underscores the discomfort: if this is status quo, what do we do about it?
To be clear: Homes never falters on the level of craft. She is a master of scene and dialogue at cross purposes. The novel brims with razor sharp prose and zings with her sensibility:
“‘Penis nuts,’ Meghan says… That’s what her mother calls communal bowls of nuts. There are things one teaches a young girl; never eat the penis nuts.”
Which is why I’ll always devour Homes with ravenous, reckless excitement. That voice, yes.. And this: She’s not afraid to show seams. This is what it means to be a human writer capturing a hopelessly flawed humanity. If you’re not in the mood, well, tough noogies.
So, no, you can’t jet off on your privilege to a 20th anniversary Grecian island-hop, and pretend to leave our national trauma behind. We, the readers, we lemurs of Twitter, we are accountable. We are the bystanders witnessing the chaos unfold with rubbernecking voyeurism. This is an indictment. We’re in deep, deep shit. Which is her whole point: There’s no escaping it.
By A.M. Homes
Published September 6, 2022