cover image Music for Torching

Music for Torching

A. M. Homes. William Morrow & Company, $26 (368pp) ISBN 978-0-688-16711-0

A child enters a suburban grammar school with a gun and explosives strapped to his body; a SWAT team moves in; a boy is shot at close range. This creepy and all too familiar scenario appears at a pivotal moment of Homes's latest novel (after The End of Alice), a caustically funny and eerily plausible portrait of a suburban family meltdown. In a nondescript Leave-it-to-Beaveresque Westchester neighborhood, Elaine and Paul find their marriage and their lives at a standstill: Paul commutes to a vaguely sinister corporate job (""how do you make people think fat is good?"" asks his boss at one point) and enjoys weekly trysts with a neighbor, while Elaine plays housewife, attends school plays, and shops. Both feel desperately ""stuck."" In a fit of boredom and frustration, following two nights of cocktail parties and barbeques with the neighbors, the two kick their grill to the ground and partially burn down their house, an event that plunges them into a sordid suburban nightmare. Moving in with what seems the perfect couple, Pat and George, they leave their boys with families they scarcely know--a decision with perilous consequences. Paul begins popping pills and has an affair with a friend's girlfriend, a psychic known only as ""the date,"" who has a penchant for phone sex and persuades him to get a tattoo on his shaved crotch, while Elaine is seduced by Pat, a Stepford Wife with a penchant for sex toys. Homes unflinchingly documents the disintegration of Elaine and Paul's family, paying explicit attention to the sexual ennui and sadistic impulses roiling beneath the sterile veneers of their lives. The dark underbelly of the average American neighborhood may seem an obvious theme, and Homes's vision of marital dysfunction is long on sardonic humor and short on profundity. But the denoument to which this disquieting tale carefully builds is powerful enough to seem coextensive with the latest, and most distressing, real-life suburban horrors. (May)