Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Flame Out

A.M. Homes's new novel doesn't live up to her previous work

By Michael Bronski

JUNE 21, 1999: 

MUSIC FOR TORCHING, by A.M. Homes. Rob Weisbach Books (Morrow), 358 pages. $26.

It's both scary and perfect that A.M. Homes's newest novel -- the final scene of which features a hostage-taking and shootout in a suburban grammar school -- hit the stores just as we learned about the massacre at Columbine High School. Homes has an often uncanny ability to locate the hidden pulse of cultural terror, and where media coverage of the real event was painfully immediate, her unsettling fiction tends to be cheerfully, even lovingly, apocalyptic. It is unfortunate, then, that the bulk of this novel feels stagnant and obvious.

Music for Torching begins well enough as a mean-spirited, frequently funny dissection of the American pastoral. Paul and Elaine and their two boys, Daniel and Sammy, live in the idealized world of the upper-middle-class suburbs: school lunches, cocktail parties, outdoor grilling, and bored adultery rule their lives. But this is the writer who, in 1996's The End of Alice, brought us a teenage girl who ate the scabs of the prepubescent boys with whom she was obsessed. It's no surprise, then, that by the end of the first chapter Elaine has purposely mixed whites with colors in the washing machine, Paul is receiving calls from a deranged female stalker from the office, and together they've burned their house down to end their pain and start a new life. Things just get worse from there.

Homes, though, is writing in a genre that already feels old: the anti-American Dream novel. She does manage to push the envelope a bit -- perfect housewives with strap-ons and butt plugs, a local cop with voyeuristic predilections -- but all too often her notions of transgression and social disarray seem ordinary and tame: adultery in hotel rooms, lesbianism in the food pantry, pubic tattoos. This is the sort of material that John Waters handles better and with more insight. As you read, you have the feeling that Homes intends Music for Torching to be a brittle, scathing response to the complacent and ordered literary worlds of Cheever and Updike. But those writers -- albeit without strap-ons or hostages -- were more than capable of exposing the apprehensions and terrors that lurk behind the perfection of 20th-century American middle-class life. Indeed, Cheever's "The Swimmer" and certain scenes from Rabbit, Run are more devastating than anything Homes conjures here.

Unfortunately, upping the ante with outré sexual antics (well, outré for the suburbs) and the occasional grotesque image doesn't bring enough heat or light to the story. Yes, those tactics worked quite well in The End of Alice, an effective novel of pedophilia, homosexuality, ritualized child murder, and the loss of American innocence. But what made that book work was not the shocking nature of the aforementioned teenager's actions, or the rape and decapitation of a flirtatious 12-year-old, but the simple, direct language with which Homes conveyed the emotional distress of her characters and their terror-filled versions of what we see as everyday life.

This gift for transforming the world with precise, shocking images is absent in Music for Torching. Too often she presents us with a vivid image that has no real content: "Elaine takes off her clothes, throws them into the washer, and puts the wet towels in the dryer. Naked, she ascends the staircase like a figure in a painting." We can see that Homes is aiming for images of rebirth, cleansing, and the stateliness of art, but it feels shallow, easy. She frequently sexualizes images -- or presents sexualized images -- to engage (or outrage) the reader, but here, too, she falls short. "The walls of Mary's bedroom are a shade of pink that Elaine can identify as vagina pink." Later, in the same room, Paul thinks about the office stalker: "The night-light has a pink bulb. It casts pink light on the pink walls. The room glows, pulsing like an organ. Paul is thinking of the date, of the cell phone in his pocket." Indeed, pink seems for Homes to be the very color of sexuality: a horny cop's "nipples are tiny and hard, like pink match heads," and "his penis is hot and pink and raw like a doggy dick." After a while, these rhetorical juxtapositions wear thin.

In all of her work -- from the 1990 novel Jack, about a boy whose father comes out of the closet, to 1993's In the Country of Mothers, about the power of mythical mothers and psychoanalysis, to The End of Alice -- Homes has proved that she understands and can write about the power of sex. But in Music for Torching, for all its scenes of explicit sexual activity, she seems afraid of actually discussing its meanings and its hold over us. In a motel room, Paul and his next-door-neighbor mistress have sex: "They fuck wildly. They fuck, and it is about fucking and nothing else -- not bills to pay, decisions, resentments, failures. They fuck, and it is his dick and her tits. And there is the slapping of their skin, the musical squeak of the springs. He is glad they are friends and that they talk to each other. She thinks he is wonderful, and they are both glad that they are not married to each other. 'Fuck me,' she is saying. 'Fuck me. I want you to fuck me.' "

In many ways this scene -- and its language -- are emblematic of what is wrong with Music for Torching. Although it has rhythm and force, it comes nowhere near the powerful exegesis of sex Homes attained in The End of Alice and In the Country of Mothers. The insubstantial and ultimately inconsequential language of pornography and erotica isn't enough, as it turns out, to shock or frighten us out of our complacency. Near the book's end, where the bloody tragedy in a schoolyard mirrors the first chapter's image of the fiery house, Homes regains some of that energy, but it is too little, too late. For all its hot-pink-flushed sex, burning houses, and explosive domestic tragedies, Music for Torching barely smolders.


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