When A.M. Homes and I sat down to lunch at Buvette, a packed cafe on Grove Street near her home in New York City’s West Village, to discuss her new novel, “May We Be Forgiven,” she referred to it as “a midlife coming-of-age novel.” That may make her book sound sweet or languorous, but it actually is neither: Set in the 1970s during the Nixon administration, it’s a big, meaty novel that bravely takes on themes of warring brothers and faith and responsibility in a wildly imperfect world.
When Harry Silvers’s brother George is arrested, Harry has to manage the family and the responsibilities his brother has left behind. And while it is a high-octane and satirical novel, it is also Homes’s most personal, and certainly her first to take on the complex issues of faith that she still grapples with in her own life.
Homes and I both grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. We both went to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and while we didn’t know each other at the time, we lived a few blocks from each other and attended High Holy Day services at Temple Sinai. I left suburban Maryland at the end of the 1980s, Homes in the late ’70s, but we both had the experience of growing up near the powerbrokers of Washington.
“I think D.C. was an odd place to grow up,” Homes said. She still has a spray of summer freckles, and seemed relaxed as we sat at our corner table. “We really would see the Nixon girls in Saks, shopping for shoes. Once, when Bush [Sr.] was in office, I was in Wagshal’s in Friendship Heights, trying to order a turkey sandwich, and the Secret Service came in with machine guns because George Bush loved Wagshal’s and he wanted a sandwich. People had guns pointing at us. Talk about surrealism. But Nixon was always an outsider. I don’t think he’d be elected today. There is a charisma factor, which has a lot to do with television. Nixon felt he won the debate with Kennedy, as did the people who listened to it on the radio. Not so for the people watching on television.”
I learned about the Nixon-Kennedy debates from the same American history teacher as Homes: Mr. Mullaney, who also ran the yearbook, led most school ski trips and documented our daily lives with his ever-present camera, showing his photographs during slideshows at school dances.