By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
For a critically acclaimed novelist who has just received the worst notices of her career, A.M. Homes seems remarkably unfazed. Dressed in shapeless black pants, gray sneakers, garish red socks and a Fred Segal shirt emblazoned with images of Santa Monica lifeguard stations, she bears only a wan resemblance to the photograph of the sultry seductress that adorns the inside flap of her new book. Though she inhabits one of the most picturesque sections of New York’s Greenwich Village, she claims to spend most of her time inside her apartment and, once there, inside her own busy head. In earlier works such as The End of Alice, The Safety of Objects and Jack, she has tackled murderous pedophiles, fathers who discover they’re gay, despairing couples and young men who fall for their sisters’ Barbie dolls. More recently, she has written for Showtime’s lesbian lifestyle drama, The L Word, and, if nothing else, she appreciated the health insurance.(Not something novelists qualify for, she notes.) In person, she is friendly and talkative, and appears simultaneously spacy and hyperefficient. Now in her mid-40s, she could pass for a cheery, lightly freckled aunt who neglects to wear makeup but might slip you a marijuana-laced cookie with a wink and a smile.
A brash, primary-colored saga of life in Los Angeles uneasily poised between satire and New Age sincerity, This Book Will Save Your Life is a marked change from the sexually transgressive stories Homes made her name with in the 1990s. Critics have dismissed it as a clichéd retread of the apocalyptic school of Los Angeles fiction, complete with the usual fires, mudslides and catastrophic upheavals caused by Mother Nature and an overreliance on the iconic fiction of Nathanael West. Homes has also been accused of peopling the novel with too many bubblegum cute, movie-ready characters. (The film rights have been sold and one does tend to mentally “cast” the roles as one reads along.) TheWashington Post dubbed the book “Apocalypse Lite,” and the Rocky Mountain News advised, “Save Yourself: Avoid this Tale of Midlife Crisis.” Most damning of all — for a resident of the West Village, anyway — Walter Kirn dismissed the novel’s climax as a “creaky, studio-system apocalypse” in The New York Times.At the venerable, gay-friendly Three Lives bookstore, a few blocks from the Italian restaurant where we meet, Homes’ previous books are all in stock, but there’s only one copy of her newest opus. Tucked discreetly in a corner of the “New Fiction” section, it looks as if it’s in hiding.
A city that tends either to entrance or repel outsiders, L.A. is understandably sensitive about how it’s perceived — particularly on the East Coast. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Samantha Dunn accused Homes of trading in a “comic book” version of L.A., and likened the novel to an “inside joke for former New Yorkers who used to live between West 66th and 86th streets and L.A. Westsiders who rarely travel east of the 405 freeway — except to go to Century City, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood or downtown.”
Yet Homes can hardly be accused of not being deeply interested in the metropolis she has chosen to write about, or at least a certain side of it. A few years ago, National Geographicoffered to send her anywhere in the world to write a travel book. The editors probably anticipated a fashionably masochistic response such as Beirut or Uzbekistan. Instead, Homes asked to be put up at the Chateau Marmont, so long as she didn’t have to stay in one of its bungalows. (She’s scared of bungalows, never mind war zones.) She recalls once sharing the swimming pool with only two other people: Matthew McConaughey and Geoffrey Rush. Between the chiseled extravagance of the former and amorphous outline of the latter, she says she felt perfectly at ease. The book that resulted was called Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill. In conversation she describes Los Angeles as “surreal,” “a difficult city to be connected in,” “the last of the wild West,” a place “that tolerates a lot of eccentricity, from the personal to the architectural” and “where the American Dream is still thriving.” She wants to write more about it. As for all the reproofs about the nature-induced apocalypse that ends her novel, not to mention a saber-toothed tiger that roams the Hollywood Hills and a pack of feral dogs that attack shoppers on Rodeo Drive, she says her idea of relaxation is to watch hurricanes on the Weather Channel or read a book with a title like The History of the Black Hole.In other words, she’s into this stuff.
The novel’s hero is Richard Nathan Novak (or Richard Nathan Nobody, as he thinks of himself in a memorably bitter moment), a wealthy, 50-something day trader who lives in near-total isolation in a glass box high in the Hollywood Hills. He has loyal attendants (maid, trainer, nutritionist), but no friends. His ex-wife, teenage son and older brother, virtual strangers, all live on the East Coast. Though his house is silent as a crypt, he is rarely without his noise-canceling headphones. The highlight of his mornings comes when, pacing on his treadmill while monitoring stocks on his laptop, he watches an unknown woman swim laps in a pool down the hill. She is the closest thing he has to a muse, but there is no poetry, or even purpose, to his life. He has not left his home in weeks, and doesn’t even realize it.