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Anyone familiar with Homes's career knows that you can't even mention her name without raising a cloud of political dust. The book caused an epidemic of critical outrage when it appeared, and there were even attempts in Britain to ban the book entirely. Paul and Elaine, the characters at the center of the new novel, look from the outside like ordinary denizens of a slightly dated version of suburbia domestica. Paul works at a blandly generic job in New York City, while Elaine stays home in Westchester to mind the household and care for their two "Aren't you supposed to have two point three?
Banal happiness would seem to be their due, but hey, we've all read our Cheever, so we know that there must be a deep, dark emptiness at the heart of these prosperous lives. And although exposing this emptiness might seem a little redundant by now, Homes is able to revitalize the tired genre of suburban despair by employing methods that bear as much resemblance to Cheever's as Jerry Springer's do to those of Jack Paar.
Paul and Elaine are cleaning up after one of those sexually fraught suburban dinner parties that I, a suburbanite for three quarters of my life, have encountered ad nauseam in novels but never in real life. In time-honored fashion, the couple's prickly interactions in the kitchen "'Gristle,' he says. Poisoning me. But while some writers would take pains to communicate these tensions with understated delicacy, Homes has little interest in subtlety. Her suburban spouses go at each other with an almost comic intensity, their spat escalating rapidly until Elaine takes a carving knife to Paul's throat.
He responds by shaving off all his hair well, who wouldn't? Much wrestling, biting and hurtful bickering ensue. And before the end of the chapter, the two of them are splashing lighter fluid on the walls of their house and, by mutual consent, setting it afire. After such a tremendously sensationalistic opening, you might think that Homes has nowhere to go with these characters, and to a certain extent you'd be right.
Their sense of alienation is so exaggerated that it leaves room for little else In their psyches. Too often Paul and Elaine seem to blunder around like brain-damaged escapees from a Pirandello play, complaining about being "unbelievably unhappy," and "incredibly, horribly stuck" but showing no capacity for any kind of purposeful thought or action. As a result, Homes has to keep the external volume high. She bombards her characters with malignant stimuli from the outside world a psychotic nymphomaniac, a menacing cop, a verbally abusive architect, etc.
Simply put, Paul and Elaine find themselves so beleaguered by circumstance that the cell walls of their ideal home-ties break down entirely. And the results, when they are not horrifying, can be hilarious. I'm reluctant to reveal much detail, but in the interest of good citizenship I should warn parents of small children that they will be unable to read the book's last chapter unshaken.
But, here, again, Homes proves herself such a virtuoso portraitist of modern depravity that any sense at violation is complicated by an overwhelming exhilaration. The scene is so electrifying in other words, that you can almost forgive Homes the blatantly aggressive impulse behind it.
Homes has claimed that she writes "in response to things going on in the culture," and that the newspaper "is filled with things far more frightening than my stories. There is such a thing as shock fatigue, after all, and a novel of such unrelenting stridency threatens to exclude itself from the really meaningful cultural discussion, closing minds before they can be reached.
Granted, serious fiction is most valuable when it challenges comfortable assumptions, but lobbing Molotov cocktails, however attention getting, is not always the most effective means of opening locked doors. The Commercial Appeal Review Homes cuts to the quick of what's wrong in suburbia By Fredric Koeppel Back In one of those prescient acts that propel a work of fiction ahead of its competitors, A.
Luck was surely involved, perhaps extraordinary canniness, but somehow Homes anticipated our newfound concerns that the safety and wholeness of the suburbs are tinged with melancholy, fear and loathing and fraught with disorder.
Pauls anxiety level has affected his hearinginstead of homeowners Paul hears homo, and out of the blue, like some memory released, he remembers that all through sophomore year Tom would crawl into his bed at night, and although he had forgotten it, long since put it behind him, he suddenly misses Tom incredibly.
He wishes Tom were with him nowTom would take care of this mess, Tom would comfort him, Tom would for- give him. Instead he is with Elaine, who is looking at him peculi- arlyas though she hates him. He turns away. He steps into the empty tub, pulls the shower curtain closed, and whispers to Tom, What do I do? Get your story straight, Tom says. Then call the police. I really appreciate it, Tom, Paul says. Its really good 25 to talk to you. How have you been? Have you been good? Have you been well?
Theres a knock on the door and Paul pulls back the shower curtain and glares at Elaine, whos glaring at him. Theyre both frightened, thinking theyve been caught. Again, theres the knocking, this time followed by Sammys small voice pleading, Let me in, let me in, I have to go.
If you could just keep this under your hat, Paul says to Tom. If you could keep it between us, Id really appreciate it.
Call me, Tom says. I will, Paul says, hanging up. Elaine opens the door, lets Sammy in, flips up the lid of the toilet, and together she and Paul stand watching the little boy about to pee. Sammy glares at them. Dont look, he says, and they turn away. When he is done, they open the door to let him out. Sammy peers into the dark motel room, asking, Where do I go? Which bed is mine? We have to go home, Paul says again an hour later when theyre still sitting naked and speechless in the bathroom and the glow of the fluorescence is casting a moldy shadow over them.
Theres nothing else to do. They dress in the dark. The swish-swishing of fabric, the furtive rustle that should be so sexy, is only sad. Time to go, Paul says, waking the children. Time to go. Am I dreaming? Daniel asks. No one answers. Can they trace the motel? Elaine asks as theyre driving away. I paid cash and registered under a false name.
How did you think of that? Theres a large outdoor fruit market down the street. He thinks of this whole strip as Produce Way. He is the man with the big fruit basket, and his ladyfriends are Mrs. Apple, Ms. Pear, and Mrs. He looks at Elaine, Mrs. What about the key? Elaine asks. Well drop it, he says. The key lands with a loud, metallic plunk, and its as though shes paid the tollbeen given the green light, go. Paul drives fast, rushing to return to the scene as though there is some prospect or possibility that he can undo what they have done.
He drives fearing the worstnot only have they set the house on fire, they have set the world on fire. He looks at the sky expecting to see it filled with the flames of subdivision. Turning a corner, swerving to avoid a cat, he is sure that every house will be burning, every tree consumed, the neighbors will be streaming out into the melting, molten streets, their arms thrown into the air beseeching the houses to smite themselves, to simply put themselves out.
He drives toward his imagined inferno, asking himself, Why? What is wrong with us? Why are we so unhappy? Slow down, Elaine says, slow down. He ignores her. Tires squealing, he makes the turn that puts them on their final approach. The streets are empty, the sidewalks bare, the night itself calm and clear. On the surface everything is as it was, as it should be.
Paul pulls into their driveway.
The sound of gravel under the tires is thoroughly familiarechoing safety and soundness. The headlights come to rest on the house, standing still against the night. Paul pulls up the emergency brake and turns off the engine.
Were home, Paul says.
Elaine had half hoped there would be nothing; a pile of coal, a load of smoldering cinder, the stem of the chimney. But instead, it is all there, no different, only dark, very dark. She stares at the house. Now what? Paul gets out. He tries to remember what yellow ribbon meansit is a song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and it is something else, something about hostages or prisoners of war. He ducks under the tape and reaches for the doorknob, hesitantly, as though it might be hot, as though he might burn himself.
It is neither here nor there, neither hot nor cold. He turns the knob and pushes against the door. Nothing happens. Elaine cracks her window open. The air smells like an old campsite, damp cinders, musty smoke. Maybe its locked, she says. He goes into his pocket for the key. Is it safe? Its our house, he says. We tried to burn it down.
It is night and silent, and they dont have to speak very loudly in order to be heardthey call back and forth to each other in stage whispers to keep from disturbing the peace, to keep from waking the children.
Should I call the police? What did Tom say? Call the police, Paul says. Ill wait here, Elaine says. Paul takes off on foot, jogging in the direction of a pay phone. Elaine sits in the car, thinking she is back to scratch, zero, square one. Shes back to where she started, only now it is worse.
She imagines running away; where would she go? Into the woods to live like a wildwoman on berries and nuts? Into the city to sleep on a steam grate?
She thinks of running. She undoes her seat belt. She is reaching to unlock the door when she sees Paul coming back. She sees Paul coming and pictures herself taking off down the streetthe streetlights like search-lights, constantly catching her. She sees Paul chasing her, not knowing why she is running, why he is chasing, except that it is his instinct to catch her, to drag her back.
A police car pulls up behind the car, blocking itElaine isnt going anywhere. The cop aims his flashlight at Paul, cutting across the lawn. She wishes the cop would yell Freeze! But Paul would think it was a joke, he would keep coming. The cop would yell again, then pull his gun and take a couple of shots at Paul, and Elaines problems would be overor if not over, at least different. She sits in the car tempted to scream: Rape!
She rolls down her window. May I see your license, sir? Im the one who called. Paul he says, breathless from his brief exertion. From the corner, from the pay phone, by the school. He points back behind him as though that says some- thing. May I see you license, sir? Paul pulls out his wallet and hands over his license.
The cop turns his flashlight on it. Is this your car, sir? And your wife and children? And is there anybody else living with you at this address? Just filling out the paperwork.
What happened? Paul asks, a sharp edge in his voice. We came home and the house was like this. What happened here?
Thats what I have to find out. Elaine is impressed; Paul is playing upset very well. Then it occurs to her that he might not be playing, his distress may be entirely real, his questions genuine. I need to understand what went wrong, he demands. Is that asking too much? Where were you this evening? What time did you leave the house? Did you stop anywhere along the way? What time did you return? Were you and your wife and children all together?
Was your house on fire when you left it? Is this routine? I can see that youre upset, sir, but I have to fill out the report. Everything I dreamed of, up in smoke. Pauls voice cracks.
And while Elaines sympathy was with him a minute ago, now she thinks hes making a spectacle of himself. She remains un- moved in the front seat. The cop comes to her window. Pardon me, maam, he says. I just wanted to say hello. I believe we met one night a few years ago. Fine, she says. Just fine. And you? Im real sorry about the house, he says. Thankfully, the damage is largely cosmetic. Really, Paul says, edging in. So you think its superficial? Im a cop, not a contractor. But I could walk you around it.
He waves his flashlight. Good, Paul says.
That would be good. Are you coming? Elaine glances at the boys, sleeping in the backseat. Theyre safe enough, the cop says, answering a question that hasnt been asked. The cop leads them around the perimeter of the house, the beam of his flashlight cutting back and forth across the grass like a tail wagging.
I feel like a spy, Elaine says. Like Im sneaking something. Its like one of those historical house tours, the cop says, trying to add something. And they all fall silent. Theyre in the backyard. The ground is damp, soggy. With every step there is a thick sucking sound. Their feet sink in. The charred, curdled smell of something gone awry hangs in the air. Burnt toast, Elaine says. Barbecue, the cop says, and again they are quiet. The back of the house is black, the stone scorched. Ten feet above their heads the dining room window is blown out, the frame torn from the house.
This is the worst of it, the cop says. Elaine sees the grill on the ground, spilled onto its side, the debris of what earlier in the evening seemed so promising lies there like rot.
She looks at Paul. Remember, she says, thinking of seven oclock when the fire was so thrilling, full of possibility. Paul says nothing.
He was the one who lit the match, who started the fire. Elaine leaned against him to kick the grill, to tip the flames onto the grass. Together they burned down the house, or so it had seemedso they had hoped. Now it is cold and crispy like it could crumble. Are houses like cars? Do they ever declare them totaled? Can we go in? Water and smoke, the cop says repeatedly when they are inside. Water and smoke. And where Paul is comforted by the fact that the house has not been completely destroyed, Elaine is depressed.
All their huffing and puffing barely blew the dining- room wall down. While Paul and the cop poke at the wall examin- ing the damage, Elaine goes upstairs. There is a dim glow at the end of the hallSammys ducky night-light running on backup batteries. She takes the duck by the neck, holds it in front of her like a candle, and makes her way back downstairs. Outside, the horn beeps, cutting the night like a blast. Paul, Elaine, and the cop hurry back to the car. Where am I? Hes sitting up in the front seat.
Home, Paul says. There was a fire, the cop says. Did I know that? Am I awake? Am I weird? Daniel drones. Shhhh, dont wake your brother, Elaine says, putting the duck down on the dashboard. It takes a nosedive, landing between the seats, the orange rubber feet poking up. Go back to sleep, Paul says, urging the boy into the backseat.
Is there someone youd like to call?
A friend, a neighbor? Is there somewhere youd like to go and spend the night? Well stay here, Paul says. Its our house, our home. Thisll be typed. You can just give it your John Hancock. What is it, Paul wants to know, a report or a confession? He wants to know but doesnt ask. Again, the cop says, handing Elaine his card, Im sorry about the house.
If you need anything, if theres anything I can do, just call. What was that all about?