As A.M. Homes's incendiary novel unfolds, the Kodacolor hues of the good life become nearly hallucinogenic.Laying bare th foundations of a marriage, flash frozen in the anxious entropy of a suburban subdivision, Paul and Elaine spin the quit terors of family life into a fantastical frenzy that careens out of control. From a strange and hilarious encounter with a Stepford Wife neighbor to an ill-conceived plan for a tattoo, to a sexy cop who shows up at all the wrong moments, to a housecleaning team in space suits, a mistress calling on a cell phone, and a hostage situationat a school, A.M. Homes creates characters so outrageously flawed and deeply human that thery are entriely believable.
A child enters a suburban grammar school with a gun and explosives strapped to his body; a SWAT team moves in; a boy is shot at close range. This creepy and all too familiar scenario appears at a pivotal moment of Homes's latest novel (after The End of Alice), a caustically funny and eerily plausible portrait of a suburban family meltdown. In a nondescript Leave-it-to-Beaveresque Westchester neighborhood, Elaine and Paul find their marriage and their lives at a standstill: Paul commutes to a vaguely sinister corporate job ("how do you make people think fat is good?" asks his boss at one point) and enjoys weekly trysts with a neighbor, while Elaine plays housewife, attends school plays, and shops. Both feel desperately "stuck." In a fit of boredom and frustration, following two nights of cocktail parties and barbeques with the neighbors, the two kick their grill to the ground and partially burn down their house, an event that plunges them into a sordid suburban nightmare. Moving in with what seems the perfect couple, Pat and George, they leave their boys with families they scarcely knowAa decision with perilous consequences. Paul begins popping pills and has an affair with a friend's girlfriend, a psychic known only as "the date," who has a penchant for phone sex and persuades him to get a tattoo on his shaved crotch, while Elaine is seduced by Pat, a Stepford Wife with a penchant for sex toys. Homes unflinchingly documents the disintegration of Elaine and Paul's family, paying explicit attention to the sexual ennui and sadistic impulses roiling beneath the sterile veneers of their lives. The dark underbelly of the average American neighborhood may seem an obvious theme, and Homes's vision of marital dysfunction is long on sardonic humor and short on profundity. But the denoument to which this disquieting tale carefully builds is powerful enough to seem coextensive with the latest, and most distressing, real-life suburban horrors. (May)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 30, 2000
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Excerpt from Music for Torching by A.M. Homes
It is after midnight on one of those Friday nights when the guests have all gone home and the host and hostess are left in their drunkenness to try and put things right again. "Too much fat," Paul says, carrying in dishes from the dining room. "The potatoes were swimming in butter, the salad was drenched in dressing."
Elaine stands at the sink, in an apron, in Playtex gloves, trying to protect herself She doesn't see it yet, but despite her prophylactic efforts, her clothing is stained. Later, she will wonder if the spot can be gotten out, if her clothing can be made clean. She will regret having bought the outfit, having cooked the dinner, having made the enormous effort to make everything good again.
Paul goes into the dining room, this time returning with the wineglasses, the bottle tucked under his arm.
Elaine scrapes plates into the trash can.
Paul puts the glasses down, brings the bottle to his lips, and finishes it, swishing the last sip round and round before bending over her shoulder and spitting it into the sink, splashing her.
"Watch it," she says.
"Gristle," he says. "You're doing it on purpose. Poisoning me. I could taste the fat-going right to the artery."
Again, she doesn't say anything.
"I should be eating legumes."
"I can't make legumes for eight-"
She loads the dishwasher. "What about her?" she asks.
"Who?""The girlfriend, the date." The woman Henry-who recently left Lucy, whom they all liked a lot-carried around allnight like a trophy.
"Nice," he says, not telling his wife that when he asked the date what she did-as in what her occupation was-she said, What would you like me to do? And when he asked, Where do you live? she said, where would you like me to live?
He doesn't tell his wife that before she left she said, Give me your phone number, and he wittingly jotted it down for her. Paul doesn't tell Elaine that the date promised to call him tomorrow. He goes back into the living room for the dessert plates.
"How old do you think she is?" Elaine calls out.
Paul returns, his hands filled with wadded-up napkins. He shakes crumbs into the sink. "How old would you like her to be?"
"Sixty," Elaine says.
She finishes loading the dishwasher, mumbling, "Hope it's fixed, hope it doesn't flood, hope the gasket isn't gone, hope you were right."
"Hope so," he says.
She adds detergent. "Sink's stopping up," she says. "The house is failing apart. Everything is made of shit."
"It only lasts so long," he says, thinking about the date. How many children do you have? she had asked him. Two, he'd said. Isn't that below average? Aren't you supposed to have two point three?
"We need so many things," Elaine says.
Paul doesn't hear her. Aren't you supposed to have two point three? she'd asked, seriously, as though it were a possibility. He hadn't responded. What was there to say? He had poured her another glass of wine. Every time he hadn't known what to say, he'd poured her another glass of wine. They'd had two bottles between them. You really know how to get to me, she'd said, drinking it.
Paul looks at Elaine-Elaine from the back, Elaine bent over the sink. He looks at Elaine and lifts up her skirt, he presses against her, he starts to pull her pantyhose down.
"Is this supposed to be funny?" she asks, still washing dishes.