If nothing else, A.M. Homes has great timing. Her much-hyped previous novel, a tale of two pedophiles called The End of Alice, cashed in on a surge of national anxiety about sex predators. Her new novel, Music for Torching, touches on gun violence in suburban schools. It was written before Littleton and was clearly inspired by earlier school atrocities, but since it’s set in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., it plays into the gathering sense that something’s rotten in suburbia (no news to readers of American fiction of the past 30 or 40 years).
The End of Alice set off shock waves because of its graphic passages depicting adult/child sex. But it also gave off fumes of overcooked, overwritten unreality because its characters were as contrived and exaggerated as the porn-caliber sex scenes that animated them. Despite flashes of fiercely precise, disillusioned observation, the book was basically the literary equivalent of a strange and repellent sex toy.
Music for Torching is a better, funnier, less force-fed novel, even though it’s so choppily written that it’s often music for skimming. It’s a variation on Homes’ patented theme of stir-crazy adolescents in pathological suburbs, but this time most of the characters are middle-aged adults. Paul and Elaine Weiss, the fortysomething protagonists, first appeared in the story ”Adults Alone” in her 1990 collection The Safety of Objects. The other stories were about suburban kids in the throes of puberty, stumbling past oblivious parents into sex and alienation. But the point of ”Adults Alone” is that Paul and Elaine, once their two small boys are parked with a grandmother, immediately revert to teenagery themselves, sleeping late, neglecting to brush their teeth, playing videogames, turning alternately wild and sullen, smoking pot and crack, careening into chaos.
In Music for Torching, the chaos isn’t temporary. Paul has sex with Elaine, with the mother of his kid’s friend, and with the whimsical girlfriend of a party guest. When she takes him to a run-down walk-up in New York City where a gay tattooist plies his trade, Paul meekly submits to getting a groin tattoo, which she finds sexy, he finds painful, and Elaine finds suspicious. He also inexplicably shaves off all his body hair and starts wearing women’s nightgowns to bed. Elaine, meanwhile, is swept into a steamy, disheveled lesbian affair with a neighbor who had seemed to be the immaculate archetype of a suburban housewife. She also meekly submits to the just-the-facts-ma’am seduction of a beefy local cop who barges into the house. The house is badly singed because Paul and Elaine had tried to let it burn down after accidentally starting a fire, just because they’re bored with everything, especially each other.
All these antics are conveyed in short telegraphic paragraphs, so the effect is of rapid-fire satire bordering on bedroom farce — a caustic and giddy caricature of hollow, haywire suburbanites. But Homes also wants us to take her characters seriously, even if she doesn’t quite manage it herself. She not only catalogs the debris of their lives but registers their regrets, anxieties, and short parental attention spans and asks us to care about what happens to them.
It’s possible to write a satire full of lurching, motive-deficient characters that makes their collateral damage painfully real and the death of a child both devastating and a last satirical straw. Evelyn Waugh did it in A Handful of Dust. Dawn Powell wrote lethal satires of New York life that struck deep. Even Tom Wolfe can extract tangible characters from his melanges of satire and set pieces. But Paul and Elaine are too numb and too dumb. They’re not much more than crash-test dummies, which is why Homes can’t make the final crash, when it comes, count. B-