There’s more but that should give you the gist of A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven ((978-0-670-02548-0, $27.95).
Fifty years ago, Southerners used to bandy about the expression “poor white trash.” Popular culture depicted these beleaguered souls as toothless, wormy people who lived at the end of a dirt road, kept a 1940s tire-less Ford on blocks on a scruffy front lawn, infected schools with head lice and beat the tar out of anyone who looked at them cross-eyed. In the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird, Hollywood gave us white trash walking in the characters of Mayella and Robert Ewell.
In our current age of euphemism and goose-stepping political correctness, “poor white trash” is now verboten. Today we might calls these folks “economically-deprived Caucasoid detritus.” Given our current political climate, however, I am reasonably certain that only a few would object to the term “rich white trash.”
And it is this “rich white trash” who make up the bulk of the characters in May We Be Forgiven. Harold Silver, nominally Jewish, a fan and would-be biographer of Richard Nixon, is at the center of the events described above.
After George Silver goes mad and commits his acts of mayhem and murder, Harold finds himself caring for his brother’s children Ashley and Nate. Nate, a saintly boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah, is wiser than any adult in the novel; Ashley is a 10-year-old who writes school essays on soap operas and finds comfort in the arms of a teacher after her mother is murdered. The childless Harold even takes into his care the boy whose mother George Silver kills in the car crash. The young woman with whom Harold has an affair eventually runs away, leaving Harold as the primary caregiver for her two aged, senile parents. Add a few pets, and by novel’s end Harold is a one-man branch of social services.
Harold engages in other endeavors as well. He talks with Julie Eisenhower about her father, Richard Nixon, and uncovers a trove of short stories written by the disgraced president. He loses his job at a university, which apparently consists of teaching a single course on Nixon. He has few financial worries, however, as the imprisoned George, a newscaster, has left the family awash in money, and Harold himself gets a wad of bucks from the school to hush up the teacher’s antics. He takes the children on various trips, including one to Nateville in Africa, where Nate wishes to have his bar mitzvah.
Though May We Be Forgiven has a good bit of dark humor, it is in her description of this African trip that Homes turns unintentionally humorous. Here the people are poor but happy: Nate and Ashley are greeted with celebrations as white bwanas, and a wise old medicine man — that’s a euphemism for witch doctor — cures Harold of his “inner sickness” through a series of purgative teas. The stereotypes depicted here — poor people happy, rich people sad; black people wise, white people foolish — will doubtless strike some readers as true, but for this reviewer, they became moments of high humor.
May We Be Forgiven is well-written, and many other critics have lauded it as a story of second chances. I decided to take it as a warning. Nearly all the characters in May We Be Forgiven belong to the Northeast elite who run much of this country. If these portraits are accurate, we are in even bigger trouble than we can imagine in this country. The lunatics truly are in charge of the asylum.