The ghost of Richard Nixon haunts A. M. Homes's newest novel, May We Be Forgiven. Our narrator, Harold Silver, is a Nixon scholar whose brother, George, has lost his mind. First, George commits vehicular manslaughter, and then he commits a terrible murder that leaves his whole family—a daughter and a son, both young adults sorely in need of parental guidance—frightened and desperate for solace. The problem is that Harold isn't the kind of guy who gives solace; instead he seeks out freaky sex acts with lonely women online and tries to ignore all the terrible things that are tearing his family apart. Homes isn't especially showy about it, but she clearly did her research into the worlds of casual internet-spawned sex encounters and Nixon history. The detail that goes into both self-contained worlds of obsession is not exposition-heavy, but Homes's accounts feel real in their complexity and stomach-churning detail.
At the same time, Harold loses his cushy university job because the history he's teaching isn't "future-forward" enough. He suffers a mild stroke. His only comfort in this time is his secret access to some lost papers of Nixon's that portray, hilariously, another side to the disgraced president. (Julie Nixon Eisenhower pops into the narrative as a disembodied voice on the phone, as fickle and as powerful as a god in an ancient Greek drama.) Turns out, Nixon spent countless hours writing short fiction about honest, hardworking Americans. Homes offers us a tantalizing, laugh-out-loud funny taste of Nixon's attempted Updikery; the word "fella" pops up a lot in the stories. But a world where Richard Nixon is the only comfort is surely a world where something is terribly wrong.
So there are wild, outrageous bursts of humor and a creeping, vague, disaffected sociopathy in May We Be Forgiven. That's par for the course with Homes, but there's something else tied up inside this bundle of neuroses and horse-laughs: The fact that no matter how awful things get—and they do get pretty goddamned bad; John Sayles invokes the Book of Job on the dust jacket, and that's maybe the most apt literary comparison I can summon, too—Harold is committed to his family in his own delusional, cockamamie way. Nixon argued, until the very end, that he did what he did because he was devoted to the United States of America. Is a devotion that springs from the wrong place always a bad thing? Homes appears to argue that sometimes love is all you need, no matter how screwed-up the heart that's doing the loving.