Salon wrote of the characters in A. M. Homes’s 2002 story collection Things You Should Know, “There are few formalities, even less bulls--t, no making nice for the sake of appearances.” The same could be said for Homes’s work as a whole. She specializes in bringing dark impulses and twisted tendencies to the surface, never softening or downplaying the often disturbing behavior displayed by her characters.
The book Homes is perhaps best known for is her novel The End of Alice -- chiefly because it caused such a stir.
The narrator, a middle-aged sex offender in prison for murdering a little girl, develops a correspondence with a college girl who's obsessed with a 12-year-old boy. The result was a compendium of behavior -- real and imagined -- that was largely so violent, sickening or "show-offy dirty," as the New York Times put it, that its prose and events were excerpt-resistant and left mainly to the brave and curious. The book spurred a flurry of protests and attempted bans.
In 1999, Homes followed up The End of Alice with Music for Torching, a novel of kink and circumstance in the suburbs of New York in which an unhappy couple sets fire to their own house, then moves in with neighbors whose seemingly perfect marriage reveals its own subterranean faults. A high school hostage situation that is part of the book's coda had coincidental parallels to the Columbine tragedy that same year. The New York Times had a typical response: "The fact is, I was at times appalled by the book, annoyed by it, angered by it. Its ending struck me as cynical and manipulative. But even so, I found myself rapt from beginning to end, fascinated by Homes's single-minded talent for provocation."
For many readers, summaries like this are a signal to run, run, run in the other direction. But first, consider that Homes's books are not just big Pandora's boxes -- they can be a funny Pandora's boxes. In the story "Real Doll," for example, collected in 1990's The Safety of Objects, a boy's -- er, relationship -- with a Barbie doll bears some humorous gibes ("I [Barbie] if she wanted something to drink. ‘Diet Coke,' she said. And I wondered why I'd asked.").
Homes's earlier work is also almost sweet by comparison. Her well-received debut novel Jack chronicled the struggles of a 15-year-old to cope with his parents' divorce and the revelation that his dad is gay; In a Country of Mothers deals with a middle-aged counselor's deepening relationship with her 19-year-old female client. Both books contain poignant explorations of identity.
In her second story collection Things You Should Know, Homes continued to develop her singular, eclectic voice. A biracial marriage suffers a rift created by an addled, deteriorating mother-in-law in "Chinese Lessons"; Nancy Reagan's current life is devilishly imagined in "The Former First Lady and the Football Hero"; a woman endeavors to inseminate herself with the leftovers from beach trysts she espies in "Georgica." As with Homes's previous works, the collection is a testament to the author's talents for portraying the depths of human pain and depravity with humor and unabashed honesty.
Good To Know
Homes is an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University.
Perhaps tired of the scrutiny that arose from The End of Alice, Homes often comes across as a difficult interview subject, flatly refusing to indulge (or even validate) the natural curiosity about any personal connection to her work. She dressed down an interviewer in The Barcelona Review in 1997 thusly: "I have no experience with ‘recovery.' Again, you're applying your own notions about abuse, recovery, personal narrative, to the work. These are not areas I work from, they are not relevant. ...You seem to have a recurring question or concern about how I assimilate what goes on in my stories into everyday life. I am a fiction writer, I work from my imagination, in response to things going on in the culture."
The Safety of Objects was adapted for film by director Rose Troche in 2001, with stars including Glenn Close and Dermot Mulroney.