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Reviewed by:
  • This Book Will Save Your Life
  • Scott Sciortino
This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. HomesViking, 2006, 384 pp., $24.95

In the advance praise for This Book Will Save Your Life, by A. M. Homes, Stephen King suggests that it "may become a generational touchstone." Certainly the beginning of the book suggests it is an offspring of Don Delillo's White Noise, published just over twenty years ago. Both are written by intelligent, gifted and controversial authors at similar points in their careers; each contains social satire and [End Page 158] absurdist elements set upon a landscape littered with postmodernist markers; each has a middle-aged protagonist who is confused about life, worried about death, and has a difficult relationship with a teenaged son. Both novels are also funny as hell a whole lot of the time.

The similarities begin to fade after that. For one, in Homes's book, Richard Novak's crisis over the specter of death occurs immediately. A man who has made a fortune trading stocks and reduced his contact with the world to his computer, newspapers, his housekeeper, trainer and nutritionist is feeling the greatest fear of death as the novel opens. He experiences pain; he falls, calls 911, and the comedy, his reentry into the world—albeit a strange, Southern California world—begins.

They run tests. There is nothing physically wrong, but the pain recurs. Richard's gyroscope is broken. He goes to a Zen workshop on Transcending Suffering, recommended by a psychological internist. He attends Gyrotronics classes. This is all hilarious, and while such attempts at righting the ship should be useless, it all seems to work. Richard, aided by the money he no longer feels the need to monitor, spending his conveniently endless wealth on others, becomes a Good Samaritan, saving animals and people, often finding himself in televised events.

He's forced to move. There is a sinkhole, damage, contractors, fire ants. He rents on the beach in Malibu. His neighbor is a famous novelist, author of a generational touchstone, with a Bentley. Richard buys cars for people and, while still eating the meals prepared by his nutritionist (now sleeping with the novelist), has taken up donuts and the man who makes them.

Toward the end the only dramatic tension involves his reconnection with his alienated son. Despite some difficulty, it happens. This being Southern California, natural disasters take over at the end, the last wonderful scene involving a less-than-natural disaster caused by substances that are nevertheless natural. Richard saves the only copy of the novelist's manuscript, a novel about "transformation," and floats along with it in the vast Pacific in the end.

Get it? Maybe you thought the title was an ironic joke about self-help books. Maybe it was, to begin with, and maybe Homes absorbed too much Hollywood while writing it. She is a brilliant writer, the evidence abounds here, but a promising novel too often declines into the episodic, and the humor, with its thirst for one-liners, descends from real acumen about twenty-first century life (the networks' assumption that everyone wants to appear on their morning shows, for example) to good Woody Allen ("Are you Jewish?" [End Page 159] "No, of course not, but my parents are.") and finally stoops at times to sitcom. Generational touchstone? Sure. Happy Days was one. Though White Noise was and is a popular novel, it was attacked by the right wing for its dystopian vision, and Hollywood has stayed away, unable perhaps to wiggle out of its inescapably bleak ending. Homes gives us the new, improved dystopia: the shit's all good, go with the flow. Stay tuned for This Movie Will Save Your Life.



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pp. 158-160
Launched on MUSE
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