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A.M. Homes ‘This Book Will Save Your Life’: A Review

This Book Will Save Your Life: A Novel.
By A.M. Homes.
Viking. 384 pages.

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 4 June 2006.)

Meet Richard Novak—although hardly anybody else has. A rich divorcé holed up in a swank L.A. pad, Richard wears noise-canceling headphones as he spends days tweaking his portfolio, seeing nobody but his cleaning lady and his macrobiotic nutritionist, who brings him shrink-wrapped meals of salmon and wheat berries, sprinkled with a little ground flax seed. Yummy!

It all seems so A.M. Homes—who specializes in weirdos and suburban neurotics, toying with them like a cat with a gerbil (in cheerfully dark works such as “Music for Torching” and “The End of Alice”) before dispatching them into flames and disaster.

But her novel about getting Richard out of the house more often, “This Book Will Save Your Life,” unfolds like a sunny fairy tale, as if Homes got her chakras adjusted and now believes that the world can be a kind and serendipitous place if only we’d bother to explore it. That cliché has launched many an RV, and for a while, Homes walks a knife-edge between mocking it and giving it voice to it. If the book slides into monotony after about 150 pages, it’s as much the cliché’s fault as it is hers.

Since Homes isn’t the best plotter in Fictionland, though, she resorts to a hoary device or 12 of her own. Like the pain she uses to give Richard a good shove at the beginning of “This Book”— excruciating, but also diffuse, which means he can muse existentially about it while still justifying a 911 call. (The move resembles the premise of the film “Regarding Henry,” in which Harrison Ford played a lawyer who learned to be a nice person by being shot in the head.)

But Homes has cheated here, because Richard is already primed to become a seeker—quiet, reflective, the most selfless day trader on the planet. On the way home from the emergency room, he stops on a whim at a doughnut shop, where his life starts to change with a forbidden bite of fried dough and his instant befriending of the shop’s owner, a maxim-spouting Indian immigrant who becomes the first of a very long line of sententious and self-absorbed fellow-travelers more than willing to help Richard discover himself.

Like the doctor of “psychological internal medicine” who treats Richard by recommending rock-climbing. Or the desperate housewife who gloms onto him, the insurance adjuster who’s always high, the super-friendly movie star who keeps popping by (I told you this was a fairy tale), and the guy in a bathrobe in Malibu who rummages through trashcans but turns out to be Bob Dylan’s buddy and lends Richard the Bentley that John Lennon gave him. People are drawn to Richard—he assembles his own constellation, his own family, in the space of a few weeks, as if the world were one big dorm floor.

Homes plugs away gamely, tossing ever more new people and experiences in front of her hero, whom she ushers along with sly yucks and wan sight-gags. Richard survives a sudden sinkhole threatening to swallow his house; a five-day silent meditation retreat; a freeway demolition derby that turns up a kidnapping victim; a threatened sexual assault by his own son; and an indifferent ex-wife who’s attacked by wild Chihuahuas while shopping in Beverly Hills. The cuteness builds slowly, but eventually hits levels that could poison Dumbo.

There are flashes of great writing, especially on what it feels like to be inside the body of a middle-aged guy who’s starting to break down. And, as she has in the past, Homes nails the daffiness of L.A., which pervades the book like a gas, a benignly embracing atmosphere with just a hint of cannabis smoke. (L.A. must be the only place, for instance, where an anal probe can be labeled “internal massage” without shame or irony.)

Unfortunately, everyone other than Richard acts as though they’ve been at a pot party, insistent that we hear their mind-blowing insight. “I walked because I didn’t have a car, because I was angry and needed to pound it out mile for mile, because I wanted to know what America was,” says one poor soul who sounds like a refugee from a Don DeLillo novel. When Mr. Malibu Bathrobe suddenly says, “Kellogg’s wanted to name a cereal after me,” you realize that Homes has once again crossed the line from satire to cartoon, to thinking she can get away with anything.

But it’s hard to tell what she wanted to accomplish — an ironic travelogue, perhaps, or a self-satire, or a bit of light bondage with her readers, who are challenged by this book’s very title to recalculate with every page just how much its author is putting them on. Homes’ reputation as a realist is undeserved: Her work (much like Dave Eggers) has always been a hybrid of the perfectly captured detail mounted in an implausible, almost defiantly immature narrative. To escape that cul de sac, she’s going to have to change more than her tone.

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