Saturday, February 28, 2009

Book Review: This Book Will Save Your Life, by A.M. Homes

In This Book Will Save Your Life, 911 returns a call, leaving a message on the main character’s voicemail. Can this happen? Does it matter? That’s the kind of book this is. Acts of god abound, yet somehow, and I’m still trying to figure this out, Homes makes it seem like it can. And makes you wish it happened to you.

Richard is divorced, retired early, fit, living a comfortable, secluded life in the hills above Los Angeles. Every morning he walks the treadmill in his living room while he checks the latest numbers from Wall Street, shifting his money around. He’s rich, and this is all he wants out of life. He has a woman who cleans his house and assists him. He has a nutritionist who brings him a week’s worth of healthy meals so he doesn’t have to leave his house. And he doesn’t, for weeks at a time.

This Book Will Save Your Life introduces the consistent sameness of Richard, spins him around as if readying for a piñata slaughter, and pitches him off in unforeseen directions. Random acts begin with a sinkhole in Richard’s lovely green yard. Then he experiences a pain, forcing him to dial 911 for help, and this introduces a series of events that takes him out of his house and beyond his comfort level.

Very quickly Richard meets an expansive cast of characters, each changing his life and opening up a horizon of possibility. There’s Cynthia, a woman he befriends after he finds her crying in the produce section. She’s miserable in her life as wife and mother. There’s Anhil, a Donut Depot proprietor who, Richard discovers, cherishes making quality donuts, driving fancy cars he can never afford, and spouts malapropisms like, “Make my words.” And Tad Ford, the movie star up the street who, when a horse gets stuck in the sinkhole, orders up a chopper, flies over with a harness, and lifts the horse to safety. This random but powerful act shines a strange spotlight onto Richard that follows him for the rest of the story.

He gets advice from doctors and friends. It’s the literary version of the Jim Carrey movie, Yes Man. Richard, instead of just letting his money make money, starts saying yes. Yes, he will go on a retreat to meditate. Yes, he’ll let Anhil drive his Mercedes. Yes, he’ll move to Malibu for the summer while his house gets worked on (sinkholes really screw up your land when you live on an L.A. hillside). He starts to want to change people’s lives, like people have affected his.

If all this sounds like a sappy, sentimental Lifetime movie (if they made movies for men), it’s not. A.M. Homes, author of the scabrous The End of Alice and the execrable Music For Torching (sorry, but I couldn’t get past page 30), lightens her touch and opens her window upon L.A., giving me one of the most enjoyable reads in a long time. I didn’t want the book to end. When does that happen? Seldom. The last time for me was with The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and before that, maybe going all the way back to The Corrections. I grew to enjoy not just all the characters, minor and major, but their travails.

The book is a happy amalgam of concurrent events. Homes follows Richard as he drives around Los Angeles, visiting Anhil at the Donut Depot, watching the till as Anhil drives in his car. After moving to Malibu, Richard does things like adopt a beach dog, befriend his crusty old neighbor who turns out to be a brilliant, famous writer (hey, why not?), shield Cynthia from her increasingly cruel husband while she starts her new autonomous life, and prepare for the visit of Ben, his long estranged son driving West to work as a summer intern at a talent agency. Thinking of his son sets off memories of his marriage, his wife, his parents, how he was never there for Ben. He wants to change, to make amends, to do nice things for people like buy them new cars or pay for hip replacements.

Weaved throughout the narrative are seemingly unrelated random events. Posters are stapled to telephone poles. Have you seen this? they ask. Photographers stand across the Pacific Coast Highway from his Malibu house. Patches of tar seep into the basement of Anhil’s Donut Depot. Fires flare unexplained in garbage cans up and down Richard’s street. A saber-toothed cat has been spotted in the city. While driving on a freeway, Richard decodes an SOS flashed by the break lights of the car ahead of him. He thinks someone is locked in the trunk and forces the car off the road. Turns out, there was a woman locked in the trunk. He saves the day and becomes one of those civic saviors (think Tom Cruise saving a woman from drowning) who piques the public’s collective interest. Thankfully, Homes doesn’t have Richard go on the Today Show to talk about it.

The randomness of events could be cloying and tricky in another story, but here it is the story, serving the overarching purpose of the character. Homes hints to deeper meanings, webbed together just out of sight. Unlike, say, Joe Meno’s Boy Detective Fails, where random unnatural events begin (buildings disappearing) only to peter out for no reason. For This Book Will Save Your Life, it’s another part of Richard’s journey of growth. It’s not to be taken too seriously, and is played for gentle laughs. Richard takes it in stride, and so should the reader.

There’s repetition in action, in everything being so random, but the constant change of locations, short scenes, action interspersed with true dialogue, and a revolving door of minor characters to interact with Richard keep the pace snappy and the mind wanting to know what happens next. Homes doesn’t let things settle, or the characters to get too analytical.

If I have one complaint it’s that the timeline gets a little blurred toward the end. It’s supposed to take place over a summer. We see the beginning of the summer. And then, before we know it, Ben is headed back east to start his senior year in high school. A little jolting. Maybe I didn’t read close enough to pick up the marks of time passing. I’m picky about segues and timelines. Hold my hand just a touch more without being obvious, don’t let me flounder in timeless fictive waters, keep me grounded.

How do you wrap up such a story, so many characters? I like a congealing at the end. Save vagueness and lyricism for short stories. If I’ve committed to read a 372 page novel, I better come away with some knowledge of how the characters finished. Or didn’t finish. And I get it here, even though the swift ending barely avoids a disaster movie/act of god crutch. Richard’s initial pain and sinkhole were merely narrative devices to drive him out of the house. Nothing is really explained fully, and nothing needs to be. It’s all metaphors, physical manifestations of upheaval, the turmoil in Richard’s life. And even though he ends up floating in the ocean, pieces of his Malibu rental around him, the smoke from wildfires clearing out in the morning sun, he is, finally, not alone.


Liz (made in lowell) said...

I think your book reviews will save my life! LOVE reading them ♥

Robin said...

I'm going on-line with my CLAMS card (Capewide Library Automated Materials Sharing) to reserve this book. Why haven't I heard of this book before? Thanks for the review!

Dell Smith said...

Liz--goodness, I guess I'll have to keep writing them. Thanks for the wonderful comment.
Hi Robin. I don't know why this book didn't garner more attention. It may not be everybody's mug of joe, but it should be. I'm partial to books that take place in L.A. anyway (see my Memorial book review). And I bought another book yesterday that takes place in L.A. and San Francisco during the late 60s/70s called The Ruins of California, by Martha Sherrill.

Anonymous said...

Well, you got me hooked, Dell. I'm going to have to search this one out. Thanks!! You're a great reviewer...


Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading, Haviland.