Jeremy Jackson + AM Homes
by Weston Cutter
Among my all-time top-five novels is Life at These Speeds by (not the actor) Jeremy Jackson. I was recommended the thing in I think Third Coast in like ’04 or something, way way back, and the book is a story about a high schooler whose life is massively upside-downed, and the story is his way of (literally) running through into some new way of living. Nothing I can here say will be enough: the book is as good a debut as I’ve ever read, and I hope if I ever publish a novel it comes close to being as tender and true. My only frustration is that Jeremy Jackson has, since Life at These Speeds, not published as much as I’d like in the styles I’d choose: he publishes YA stuff under a different name, and has another novel called In Summer which didn’t match up to his earlier one, and he’s the author of several cookbooks. That’s all great, but I was hugely excited when Milkweed announced they’d be publishing his I Will Not Leave You Comfortless, a memoir about his eleventh year, about the year his sister left home and his grandmother died.
I’ll admit that I’m not the ideal reader for a book with that as its focus—I’m not much a memoir dude, and I’m even less someone keenly taken by soft, sentimental tales of youth and loss. Just doesn’t much do it for me. And yet: I was into Jackson’s book all the way through for this almost magic grace in the paragraphs, in the structure of the thing. Here’s a paragraph at random so you’ve some sense of what I mean:
At the end of third grade, Michelle Marquis moved away. This was a maddening injustice and the cause of a gew weeks of specific heartbreak and a summer of a more generalized sense of loss. I had dreams about riding the bus with her, laughing with her, then watching her step off the bus onto a dusty gravel road and knowing I wouldn’t see her again. But as soon as school resumed—fourth grade, last year—the pain evaporated as it became apparent that Toni was more wonderful and radiant than ever, as if she were now Toni times two. For fourth grade, we ended up in the same class again, and that was the year we almost got married.
That paragraph’s finely representative, honestly: if you’re charmed by the innocence at work, and if you’re taken in by this almost welcome feeling of gladness as emotional precision is reached for and settled on, this book’s for you. If the above seems coy or cloying in its childishness, this book’ll wear on you. I found myself in a maybe 70/30 split: I was mostly taken by the innocence, though it’s ultimately a marathoner’s task to hang with the emotional upheaval of an 11-year-old’s lifechanging year, or maybe not a marathoner’s task but something, anyway, that demands a sweetness, a shut-out-the-world perspective I had a hard time summoning some days. Still: it’s a very good book. Even more still: I still want another novel that swings as hard for the fences as his first did.
I like Homes a whole awful lot. I taught her “Things You Should Know” yesterday in my intro to lit class as an example of masterful, masterfully compressed fiction. I think she’s lights-out good sometimes—mostly, yes, in her stories. All this as lead-up to say that I was as excited about her latest novel, May We Be Forgiven, as I could’ve been when I found it was coming, and also to say that it was easily the biggest let-down of a book this fall.
Here’s the set-up: Harold Silver, 48, Nixon scholar and prof at a NY college, engages in an affair with his brother’s wife; brother gets in a car accident which orphans a young boy; brother soon thereafter kills his own wife in unclear mental condition; Harold takes over his brother’s life, basically, living in his house, being parental to the kids, engages in online-organized hook-ups, is a sort of flatly-drawn academic (unfinished book! feckless! dim!), loses his job. I don’t know. I do know this book is emphatically not made for readers like me: folks who, for instance, expect a 48 year old college prof who claims “I am after all in the business of knowing about things,” to know, sure, that a piece of furniture is Ethan Allen (which he does) but also to know what a fucking Hello Kitty backpack is as well (which he does not). Also: that that character wouldn’t call mammaries boobies, which he does. Ultimately the problem with the novel is that Harold’s an unbelievable character, to say nothing of the fact that all the characters in here are ultimately not very likeable, either. I’ve been thinking lots about this, lately, honestly: I’m reading James Meeks’s The Heart Broke In, which’ll be reviewed here shortly, but unless the ending’s a total cluster, it’s gonna be in my running for best novel of the second half of 2012. It’s huge-hearted, massively satisfying, rich with detail and charaacters who are both likeable and not—but, and this is the key, the unlikeable characters are folks the reader can at least empathize with. That’s the trick with May We Be Forgiven: I couldn’t for a second empathize with doltish, lost Harold. I hate to sound like some aw-shucks midwesterner, but this book seems made for east coast folks—a winning, accurate little jag of accurate rendering of sorts of lives that perhaps exist there. To these ears, however, the thing reads frustratingly vapid.