May 2006

Angela Stubbs

fiction

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes

A.M. Homes’s new work, This Book Will Save Your Life invites the reader to live in the extraordinary and often strangely surreal world of Los Angelenos. While Homes’s style never waivers with her unique and original voice, she reveals to us a work that is bright and full of transformation. After six years, Homes lands on the literary landscape with a work that is somehow similar, yet exceptionally different from story collections and novels past. These pages contain revelations about love, relationships, health, fame, fortune and misfortune. The minutia of everyday life is put under the microscope here while we meditate on unexpected scenarios and emotional voids.

The work here is that of a consummate storyteller. Homes’s familiarity with the city of Los Angeles is impressive and moreover, the accuracy with which she describes those who inhabit this surreal landscape is bar none. Initially it seemed the title was teeming with irony, but upon further reflection the book’s title is really asking us to open ourselves up to life, to the possibilities that exist, an awakening if you will. Richard Novak is the prime candidate for an eye-opening, life-changing experience and this novel begins with just that. Our protagonist is a wealthy day-trader who lives in the Hollywood Hills (equipped with housekeeper, nutritionist and physical trainer) and has just realized that his body is rejecting everything about him and this surfaces in what seems to be a full-fledged anxiety attack. While Novak is never told precisely what has gone wrong, the residual foreignness he feels in his own skin has allowed him the opportunity to change things in his life that he never knew needed upheaval.

As angst sets in, our protagonist has the misfortune of being bumped by a car outside of a new-agey bookstore, having a run-in with a hysterical housewife at the produce section of his local grocery store and upon his return home he realizes his house is actually being eaten up by a sinkhole. It's circumstances like these that cause one to assesses their life and lifestyle. Here, Novak does just that. The essentials are re-evaluated and while his money does allow for him to soak up the perks that this town has to offer, he purges himself of the stereotypical things he used to deem necessities. After a heart-to-heart chat with a stranger who owns a local donut shop (who later becomes a very close friend), we see an existential moment of choice that ultimately reveals things to come.

In Los Angeles, it’s common to seek therapy by visiting a psychologist, but Novak finds that being a Good Samaritan and helping others with by sharing his financial good fortune and big heart to be equal in value. Along his path to redemption and societal detox, an interesting variety of people take up with him (via car accident, donut shop or natural disaster) and realize they also can live better lives.

Homes does have a sense of humor about the trials and tribulations those in La-La land  face on a day to day basis, albeit 405 traffic, nutritionists, pilate/yoga instructors, or power-tripping agents -- even tabloid-esque reports of feral Chihuahuas invading Rodeo Drive. While there are plenty of distractions living in a city like Los Angeles, Homes addresses the after-effects of a dysfunctional upbringing (replete with a missing father-figure) and the unbalanced lifestyle often inherent when raised by a single parent. Enter Novak’s son, Ben. He journeys to Los Angeles via road-trip with his cousin and the two re-unite at his father’s rental home in Malibu. During this summer stay, father and son bond and slowly they learn things about each others lives (Ben tells his father he’s gay and Novak discusses his guilt from having been absent in his life) that allow them to get past some of the issues that have been plaguing them both.

In the midst of personal pandemonium, Novak begins to digest his life as it stands. Homes has created a character that holds himself accountable for his wrong-doings by attempting to make them right. And this lesson is not just one-sided for our protagonist. Those whose paths he crossed all seem to be better for it. Some of his gestures help others financially (funding Anhil’s new donut store), some spiritually (sending a woman he barely knows to a spa/retreat). Novak walks away from each encounter wanting more interaction and less isolation.

Homes always manages to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. In This Book Will Save Your Life she continues along that path, sprinkling in irony and truth for flavor. And while many of her story collections and novels address surreal scenarios, self-hatred and death, to name a few, it is here that she accentuates accountability, redemption and life. While Los Angeles may come across as one of the most self-indulgent to live in, it seems apropos that Richard Novak would vehemently oppose having such a large part in it.

This Book Will Save Your Life forces us to take a look at how we live our lives and to acknowledge our shortcomings in all of their various forms. A.M. Homes has made it impossible to forget the endless possibilities in life and our capacity to accept change, even in the strangest of landscapes; she reminds us that anything is possible.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M Homes
Viking Press
ISBN: 0670034932
372pp.