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Novel explores the woes of rich white trash

bookLet me take a deep breath and see if I can get this out in one long ugly sentence: 

A man has some sort of mental fugue while driving, slams into a another car, and kills two people; his married brother moves into the man’s house while the man is in prison and a mental evaluation unit; the brother sleeps with the man’s wife; the man sneaks out of the institution, returns home, finds his brother in bed with said wife, and bashes in the wife’s head with a table lamp; the authorities send the man away for treatment which includes living in a wilderness prison where he befriends an Israeli terrorist; the brother, whose wife kicks him out of the house, moves into the man’s house and assumes responsibility for his nephew, a 12-year-old who has a village in Africa named after him for work he did there when he was 10, and for his niece, a 10-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with a female teacher in the private school she attends, a relationship which ends when the brother takes some money to keep the affair quiet rather than reporting it to the authorities; the brother himself engages in internet sex, sleeps with a homemaker whose husband knows everything and then with a much younger woman who later abandons her aged parents to the brother’s care; the brother suffers a stroke, but continues to engage in sex. 


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.”

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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.

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