The novelist A.M. Homes meets me for lunch on 10th Street. She’s dark-haired and pretty, in a blue blazer and lavender shirt, and has a dryly jocular air. When a tall television personality comes into the restaurant and finds his lunch partner, a blonde, Ms. Homes looks at them assessingly and turns to the subject at hand, sex and writing.
“I sympathize with Salinger,” she says. “If you sleep with somebody, you are never allowed to talk about them. There’s a tacit agreement that you can’t publicly discuss them or whatever they’re like.”
“Is any of your sexual material identifiable?”
“Oh, no,” she says, dipping her head.
“Am I making you blush already?”
“You’re not. It’s really more the parmesan.”
I’m a little defensive because Ms. Homes is a bombthrower, and her latest novel, Music for Torching (Rob Weisbach Books), is set in Westchester County and aimed at me, or people like me. Ms. Homes is doing for Updikeish middle-aged marriage what Larry Clark, the director of the movie Kids , did for John Hughes movies. Her story of a family exploding is at once horrifying and antic. And-this is the rub-A.M. Homes is not married or suburban or middle-aged. (She says she is in her “middle 30′s, and I plan to stay there for a while.”)
“I’m obsessed with marriage,” she says. “The idea that two total strangers are going to intertwine their lives forever just seems incredible to me. Yet everything in the culture is geared toward marriage. Marriage changes a person or limits a person or you give up certain things. You even give up certain foods.”
I ask her where she gets her material, and she says she’s been eavesdropping on marriages since she was a kid, and hushed her friends who were playing the license-plate game in the back seat so she could hear the fight going on in the front. And she’s been in relationships.
“If you’ve been in more than two serious relationships, you know that the same stuff keeps coming up,” she says. “It’s like an algebra problem. You have to solve for x at a certain point. Have you ever been in couples therapy?”
“No. But my wife says we should go.”
“I think most couples go at the end,” she says. “I enjoyed it. The other person can always blow your cover. The other person saw you in the situation. It’s incredibly exposing and intimate. But it’s riveting. It’s better than any television show, because there’s like a room monitor.”
I move the subject to the best character in her book, wild, goofy, angry Paul Weiss.
“Let’s talk about Paul,” I say. “How many times does he have sex in your book? Twice with Elaine.”
“I think three times. The one where she’s so bored? In the first chapter.”
No wonder I forgot that. They’re doing it on the couch, and Elaine is screaming she’s bored. They’re both crying. It’s the beginning of their freakout, over one week in June. Paul tries to burn down the house, has an encounter with a palm-kissing drug executive on the commuter train, gets dragooned by his latest sex-interest, a psychic, at lunch, into tattooing his crotch. Elaine has sex on the kitchen floor with a suburban Überhausfrau , buys Paul a nightgown because he likes to cross-dress, wakes up to the fact that he’s having an affair, begins to look for a career, vandalizes a school, and also tries to burn the house down. All this while their adolescent son turns into a monster.
“O.K., three times with Elaine. Once with Mrs. Apple. Once with the girl who gets him the tattoo. And beats off twice. Six orgasms in a week. Not bad for a 46-year-old in a marriage he’s tired of.”
“I don’t think six in a week is high,” A.M. Homes says. “I think it’s an individual thing. What do they say about Warren Beatty? Two, three, four times a day?”
“What about implausibility?”
“I don’t think about that.”
“A.M., you teach writing. Do you ever tell your students, ‘Write what you know’?”
“No. I think you can write about what you know for about an hour and a half. Then you have to start bullshitting. So I say, lie to me and lie to me well. The only way to write well is to write accurately. Accuracy is not about the reader, it’s about the subject and the character. If they have sex seven times, they have sex seven times.”
“And Elaine has sex with three people, Paul, Pat and the cop.”
A.M. Homes smiles sadly. “Elaine is going through a little episode.”
I called A.M. Homes after reading the wonderful scenes between Pat and Elaine in Pat’s neat house. Pat grabbing an oven glove to put under Elaine’s head on the kitchen floor as she takes her underwear off. “Every lick, every flick causes an electric surge, a tiny sharp shock, to flash through her body.” A.M. Homes’ dirty writing turned me on in the same way that Couples turned me on when I was a kid. As she demonstrated in her last novel, The End of Alice , A.M. Homes is a master of diction, manner. Whatever you think about her heart, and I’m not sure, she has a great ear and she read a lot of Henry Miller as a girl. Reading her sex scenes made me wonder where erotic writing has been all these years.
I tell her I thought the sex between Paul and Mrs. Apple, between Pat and Elaine, was “good” sex. A.M. Homes looks at me with sphinxish detachment.
“For you, maybe. That’s a personal choice.”
“Why write about sex?”
“Sex is still a subject that people are not comfortable with. Obviously, everyone’s having sex. There’s proof of it because there are a lot of babies. But as much as people try to be hip about it, it’s not something they talk about easily, or well. And a lot of sex writing is weird, cheesy or porny.”
She tells me about sources and methods. One friend told her that Connecticut housewives sometimes got drunk and had sex with one another, then pretended it hadn’t happened. The writer Michael Cunningham related another suburban myth, mothers having sex with their housekeepers. This is good material, and now we’re finally ready to hear it. As for her suburban material, Ms. Homes began gathering it in college at Sarah Lawrence. She rode around Westchester, from Jean Harris’ prison in Bedford Hills to Sing Sing on the Hudson. She says you can hear prison noises from a street above the prison, and she still likes to drive around the suburbs.
“What kind of car do you drive?” I say.
“I’m not talking about that.”
“Do you get turned on, writing?”
“No. Writing is hard work and writing about sex well is very hard work.”
She’s very cerebral, a little detached. “Are you a sexual person?” I say.
“I don’t know. I leave that to you.” Return of the sphinx. “My responsibility is to represent my characters as fully as I can.”
“Can we talk about your sex life?”
“No. I’m not telling you anything about my sex life. You’re talking about my book. My own sex life is far more conservative.”
“So’s mine,” I say. “Do you consume any pornography?”
“No. I’m on a diet. Strict diet. News magazines only.”
A.M. Homes shakes her head. “I was treated for video consumption as a child, and it went away.”
Lunch is almost over and A.M. Homes takes me by the hand to the intellectual mission of her book.
“In the 60′s, people ran political campaigns on dreams, or promises,” she says. “There was this weird moment where we bought into the dream, thinking that it was the American entitlement. We forgot the word dream. We thought the dream was a real thing. Of course, after smoking pot and Watergate, it began to crumble, it became the American psychotic episode. And then you look at all the political campaigns now. They’re factual, and there’s the rise of the memoir-What true story can I tell you? Rather than the dream, the promise. That’s what I’m interested in. A very conventional couple at the end of this episode historically. There’s their home, their lawn, their display-and what goes on inside the house is so different. That is incredibly fertile territory.”
The problem is the claim that her characters are conventional, and therefore could shine a light on suburban manners. Would a 43-year-old (apparently Jewish) Scarsdale woman who’s smoked crack and thinks the Boy Scouts are fascist never have had a job? Would her husband be advancing to the corner office in midtown by doing finger paints, popping smart drugs and writing slogans like Assume Your Right? Would forsythia bloom “technicolor” in June? (Maybe in Canada.)
But strip away the special effects (Littletonish violence, too) and you get to the story of a marriage. This is what A.M. Homes does best, renders the emotional traffic of a couple in despair. The failure, the trying, the stultification, the inability to imagine being anywhere else.
“I want you to think about yourself,” she says. “In a funny way, you could be Paul. You could also not be Paul. You know these people.”
I make a face, trying to dodge the arrow. Ms. Homes has something of the terrorist about her, the cerebral revolutionary. She knows she’s put me on the defensive, and adds, wittily, “I’m pro-marriage. I’m pro-family.”
“So much can happen and you can’t rule anything out. You can’t say anything about whether people should and shouldn’t do. Things happen that you think aren’t possible.”
At this point, the tall television star gets up and goes out into the sunlight, with his date.
“He could be going to get a tattoo right now,” A.M. Homes muses. “Maybe you shouldn’t write that he was with a woman.”
I have a sudden wash of protective feeling for him as a married guy. “I’m not going to say his name,” I say. “But I am going to say you wouldn’t tell me what kind of car you drive.”