Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, April 23, 2006
THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE
By A.M. Homes
Viking. 372 pp. $24.95
No, it won't. A.M. Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life can't even generate enough energy to save itself.
This tepid satire about modern America begins with Richard Novak, a wealthy day trader, having a panic attack and being rushed to the hospital with "incredible pain" all over his body: "He lay there realizing how thoroughly he'd removed himself from the world or obligations, how stupidly independent he'd become: he needed no one, knew no one, was not part of anyone's life. He'd so thoroughly removed himself from the world of dependencies and obligations, he wasn't sure he still existed."
That existential crisis could lead to great pathos or great comedy, but over the next 300 pages, Richard meanders through a series of chance encounters, reaching out with new interest and generosity to strangers who never become much more than their costumes. There's the Middle Eastern owner of a donut shop, the housewife crying in the grocery store, the handsome movie star, the reclusive '60s novelist. Richard befriends them all with low-key good cheer and somehow manages to change his life completely with about as much effort as I've expended switching shampoos.
He gives away new cars, pays for his maid's hip replacement, sends the weary housewife to a spa. "This is the person he wants to be," Homes writes. "He wants to be able to do this for others, strangers, it doesn't matter who, and he wants to be able to do it for himself." His Good Samaritan impulse also inspires a series of impromptu rescue operations: A horse is trapped in a sinkhole, a hostage is trapped in a trunk, a woman is trapped in a bad marriage. These episodes are mildly amusing (for 15 minutes, he's a national celebrity, a punch line on Letterman), but because Richard is so imperturbable and his success so firmly guaranteed, the scenes never develop any real suspense.
The larger problem, though, is the dullness of Homes's satiric edge. She portrays Los Angeles as a city collapsing -- morally and physically -- but it's Apocalypse Lite. Anyone who wants to make fun of bizarre diets, ludicrous luxuries, New Age fads and crippling exercise regimes has to stay ahead of the ever-escalating real-world grotesqueries of modern life. If you're as isolated and disconnected as Richard, you'll find the details here surprising and hilarious, but otherwise, it's yesterday's news.
Only in the last third of the novel, when Richard's 17-year-old son arrives after many years of separation, does the story make an emotional connection that doesn't seem contrived. Richard finally has a chance to save the one person he should have been concerned about from the start, but two-thirds of a novel makes for a long prologue. And when his son finally confronts him with resentments saved up through adolescence, it's a shriek of psychological pain like being awakened by a firecracker: shocking but not very illuminating.
Save yourself. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.