The March class assignment for my writing workshop is to read May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes. I did my homework and if I were smart, I’d wait with this review until after the class discussion. Because then I’d sound super smart and attuned to all the crafty things Homes has done in her novel. But I can’t wait that long. This book is too good not to share.
The novel is set in the suburbs of New York City, a place and state of mind made famous by John Cheever. Our hero is Harold Silver, a man who makes a fatal mistake and watches his life fall apart as a result.
The first thing you need to know about Harold is that he’s gormless. His sister-in-law seduces him while Harold is elbow-deep inside a turkey carcass. Everyone around him is larger than life. The maniac brother George, his two children Nate and Ashley and a whole host of strays that wander in and out of Harold’s life.
Many of those strays are women hot for Harold. Yet he is a member of that least sexiest of professions. He’s a history professor with a passion for Richard Nixon.
I don’t know my US history well enough to tell whether Homes got that part right. But she nailed the voices. The preteen Ashley at her all-girls boarding school, the suburban housewives Harold meets in sex chat rooms and his own mother determined to commit polygamy in her retirement home: all rendered in perfect hysterical detail.
Gormless Harold not only has a way with women but also children, dogs, old people and Chinese restaurant owners. He meets them at their level and treats them as equals, perhaps because he, too, feels trampled by all the other so-called adults in the room. Everything that happens to Harold surprises him and the reader, too.
For the most past, I was happy to chuckle along and even root for the hapless Harold. But I did stumble over two plot points.
The first is that Harold has access to unlimited amounts of money, almost none of it earned by him. He functions as a human ATM for nephew Nate and niece Ashley. Homes seems to be somewhat aware of this conspicuous wealth since she assigns to Nate the endearing trait of not wanting any more things.
But that doesn’t stop Harold from engaging in some pretty conspicuous consumption, which brings me to my second quibble. Harold takes a trip to South Africa where he meets the shaman-like character Londisizwe. True to form, Londisizwe immediately diagnoses Harold with a serious ailment and prescribes a remedy straight out of the Good Housekeeping Book of Magic. A little twee in a novel otherwise packed with surprises.
One surprise is Homes’s choice to invest Harold with this level of gormlessness. You normally find this quality in the comic sidekick or any number of expendable extras. So it’s quite a hat trick Homes pulls off. As a reader, we come to feel for Harold, cheer his small victories and hope that, in spite of himself, things will work out.
Of course, using a first person narrator relating his story in the present tense gives us the sensation of experiencing Harold’s life in real time. But Homes shows her true craftsmanship in her use of the micro-scene.
what is a micro-scene?
A micro-scene consists of the same components as a “regular” scene. Both can contain plot, character, setting, dialogue, action and so forth. A scene’s only limitation is time. As John Gardner puts it on The Art of Fiction, the scene must be
an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another.
The difference between a scene and a micro-scene is that the latter is more compact. Homes builds her novel entirely out of micro-scenes. Most are only a page and a half long, some no more than a few lines. There are no chapter breaks, no sections, no visibly demarcated narrative arcs within the greater story line.
But length is not the only criterion for a micro-scene. Flash fiction writer Jack Cameron Stanton calls the micro-scene:
the fraction that alludes to a whole. [The writer] sends through a glimpse of a bigger world that resonates with the reader and leaves them mining their imagination for possibilities.
In other words, the reader need to do the heavy lifting. Keep the gas tank filled and the engine running as we journey from one micro-scene to the next. We invest in Harold and his extraordinarily complicated life. And in the process, we fall helplessly in love with the gormless Harold.