AM Homes is an early riser. This is entirely appropriate for an author whose initials suggest an activity before noon. When we talk on FaceTime, it’s 8am where she’s in a studio she owns on Long Island, an hour’s drive from his Manhattan home. This is where she comes to write and does not come alone. “I have this little friend with me,” she says, pointing to Grace, a Labradoodle dog with fur the color of ice cream cones. “She likes to go to the beach first.”
Homes, 60, is such a gregarious proposition on screen that the subtle parameters of an iPhone can barely contain it. As he speaks, she bends over like this and then that, with her hair all over the place, and often looms for an extreme close-up, the sun shining on her blue glasses. She was born with the name Amy, she says she always went for AM, and that’s what everyone calls her, “even my [college-aged] daughter. “When I ask what the M means, her answer is a deadpan lie:” Medium! “
For the past 30 years, Homes, one of America’s best writers, has written terribly propulsive, though often downright disturbing novels, and is someone whose literary themes seem to come true shortly after writing them. One of his first novels, for example, 1999 Music for the torch, features a school shooting. A few months after its release occurred the Columbine tragedy, “which was our first big school shooting. Everyone said: how did you do it? How did you know? But I only read the culture, I read the world, and then I see it coming “.
His new novel, The deployment, his first in a decade, formed in his mind several years before the election of Barack Obama and his unlikely successor, and essentially explains how one generated the other. “When I started writing it, it seemed a long way off,” he says, “but then, hey, it turned out to be real.”
The book takes place between Obama’s election victory in November 2008 and his inauguration a few months later. It revolves around an American family: a wealthy Republican donor known as The Big Guy (Charlton Heston could have played him in the film adaptation had he been a cryogenics enthusiast), his alcoholic wife Charlotte – who realizes too late that she has wasted her life about her husband when he could have forged his own identity instead – and their teenage daughter Meghan, desperately trying to wipe out the naive cocoon of her pampered world. Each of them, for different reasons, falters after the presidential election in which the majority of Americans voted for someone whose middle name is “Hussein”.
Action is needed, The Big Guy thinks, and so he assembles a cabal of equally well-connected wealthy white men to undermine the incoming presidency by stealth; to bring back what they see as some sort of order and sanity to their country. Their plan is to “spread ideas like a virus”, but these ideas must be “comforting like peanut butter and jelly”. Also, they have to harness the power of the average Joe. “There are millions of Joes in this country; we have to get Joe into the fold. We need to tell him what to think. We remind him that in America democracy is capitalism, weapons and lower taxes ”.
This is the perfect territory for Homes: peering at his fellow American citizens through a gimlet eye and not always happy with what he sees. The deployment it works brilliantly as a satire, but it’s also heartbreaking because it paints the United States as it is now: deeply divided, deeply problematic.
“Look, I’m a fiction writer, not a political historian,” she says, “but I think it’s interesting that people think, ‘I don’t know how we got here! What happened? ‘”You mean that Donald Trump’s subsequent election was inevitable because America is full of people like The Big Guy. “What does it mean for these people who are losing power? What does it mean for them to finally realize they could be assholes? Not that they will do anything about it, but they are realizing it now, perhaps for the first time. “
In one section of the book, The Big Guy belatedly realizes that he has always considered female citizens to be second-class. “I’m sorry for these women,” he muses. “For the more intelligent, wives and mothers are not exactly the careers they had planned. In retrospect, we should have encouraged them more. “
This willingness, in his novels, to speak as he finds, to be effectively critical of his countrymen and compatriots, means that Homes is not universally embraced in his homeland. Some are convinced that he has anti-national feelings. Not her, he says. “But as I said, I look at the world around me and write what I see. Sexism and racism in America right now are very, very real. “
I suppose it would be a lot easier to just be loved by people – I could definitely use the ego boost! – but I find it difficult to write a super light book
“When I think of Trump today,” he continues, “I still think it didn’t happen, that we were just having a bad trip. I want to suck it all up in the vacuum cleaner. “She adopts a voice like a TV commercial tells:” ‘Have you ever made a mess that you can’t completely clean up? Try the Hoover 7000!’ You know, what came out of that moment is that people started not playing by the rules anymore, and all of a sudden everything was fine. Some of those rules weren’t even written, because no one had ever thought of overcoming. those limits before. Previously, we had done well, we had played well. Not now. ” He squeezes his cheeks with his hands, fingers spread. “It was very destabilizing.”
AM Homes wrote her first novel, the coming-of-age novel Jack, at the age of 19 (it was released when he was 28). She grew up in Washington DC, the adopted daughter of an artist and school counselor, but she never wanted to be a writer; she wanted to be a rock star. “Specifically, I wanted to be in the Rolling Stones.” She played drums, but the Rolling Stones already had a drummer. She then she turned to fiction instead.
Since so much of his work has made reading deliberately uncomfortable, he has been very commercially successful. His 1996 novel The end of Alice was a bestseller about a convicted pedophile writing to a woman with similar tendencies, while that of 2006 This book will save your life it told the story of a wealthy merchant who suffers from an existential crisis and suddenly tries to be nice to others. That book was chosen for the Richard and Judy Book Club and sold 360,000 copies. Non-conformist American director John Waters said of it: “If Oprah is crazy, this could be her favorite book of hers.” Her latest novel, 2013 We can be forgivenwhose themes violated adultery, divorce and death, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
It can even make first-person narratives scandalous. After meeting her biological father in her thirties, she wrote a memoir, The daughter of the mistresswhere she imagined having sex with him.
“I’m not going to be provocative,” she says. “I don’t think, ‘Oh, that’s fine, I’ll hit this button!’ But I like to talk about things that others find difficult. I suppose it would be so much easier to just be loved by people – I could definitely use the ego boost! – but I find it hard to write a super light book. ‘simple love “.
And that’s what makes her such a compelling writer and really worth reading. She peels the skin of the modern world, she is horrified by what she sees and then she says to the rest of us: “Look.”
“I read the papers, very often in the middle of the night,” he says, “and I read what’s going on, and I worry. I feel – like the generation of our parents and grandparents – that we walk around confused by what is in front of us. But then we are in a strange place right now. We’re not the first wave of people who made a mess – we didn’t put microplastics in everything – but we’re riding the wave of that mess. “
He frowns. “All of this is super interesting to me, but it’s also terrible, painful and scary. It is paralyzing ”.
‘The Unfolding’ is published by Granta