‘Why Didn’t You Kill Him?’

Marion Ettlinger/Corbis
A.M. Homes, New York City, 1998

A.M. Homes loves crises in suburbia. She begins many of her books in medias res and never lets up. Her dialogue is extremely funny, worthy of a stand-up comic—rapid and raw. The action is unrelenting and endlessly inventive. Just when the reader thinks she can’t top that, she does.

May We Be Forgiven covers a tumultuous year from one Thanksgiving to another. It begins with the narrator clearing the dishes of the many guests for his brother’s wife; she kisses him when they’re alone in the kitchen. A few months later he is in bed with her, wearing his brother’s pajamas. The brother, they believe, is being held in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital after he has run a light and smashed into a car and killed two people; unbeknownst to the adulterous couple, he has escaped the ward, walked home, and crept up to the bedroom, where he smashes in his wife’s head with a lamp. Eventually Jane dies and is buried by page fifty.

Mind you, these people are rich and “civilized.” The murderer, George, is the head of a TV network and has a shelf full of Emmys to show for it. The children, Ashley and Nate, are both enrolled at exclusive boarding schools. The son has a bar mitzvah that must have cost more than a hundred thousand dollars, all paid for out of the institutionalized father’s limitless account. The ceremony is held in Natesville, a village in Africa the son has bankrolled. Everything—plane tickets, caterers, presents, chauffeurs—is provided without a second thought.

The narrator, Harry, moves into Jane and George’s house—and inherits their dog Tessie and their two children, who come home to see their hospitalized mother and then attend her funeral. George’s clothes fit him. His own high-powered Asian wife, Claire, seems at best indifferent to him; when she discovers from the New York Post that he was sleeping with his sister-in-law, she angrily files for divorce. When he tells her that Jane is on a ventilator, she absent-mindedly says, “I’m glad she’s feeling much better.”

The children are more mature than the adults (as in Joy Williams’s fiction), though they’re terribly precocious:

When Ashley excuses herself to go to the bathroom, Nathaniel leans over.

“Did you fuck my mother?”

I don’t answer.

“She was into you; she used to tease my father by talking about you.”

Again, I say nothing.

“Where is Dad?” Ashley asks when she gets back to the table.

“He’s here.”

“This hospital?” Nate asks.

I nod. “Do you want to see him?”

“Should we see him?” Ashley asks.

“Entirely up to you.”

“I need to think he’s dead,” Nate says. “That’s the only way I can make sense of it. He did this and then turned the gun on himself.”

“There was no gun,” I say.

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