By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Out of nowhere, a savage, body-ravaging pain — it appears to be a heart attack — gets him outside and down the hill to Cedars-Sinai in a hurry. But the infarction proves psychosomatic, and Novak is released from the emergency room at 4 a.m. On the way home, he stops in an all-night doughnut shop run by Anhil, a chirpy East Indian immigrant who lovingly crafts his own doughnuts and observes that “Americans try on the spiritual life of others like they don’t have any of their own.”
Novak, it turns out, is about to embark on such a journey himself. The book may not save readers’ lives, but it definitely rescues its protagonist’s, as Novak discovers himself by discovering — and helping — other people. He befriends a weeping housewife in the aisle of a supermarket, rescues a kidnapped girl in a wildly improbable scene on the freeway, makes the acquaintance of a glamorous Hollywood actor, and becomes fast friends with a scruffy Malibu eccentric who turns out to be a reclusive novelist of Salinger-esque status. In between learning to meditate during a weeklong retreat, he renews contact with his brother, finally bonds with his angry, disaffected son, and ends years of celibacy in an ecstatic bout of lovemaking with his single-breasted gyrotonics instructor. He also showers everyone he meets with expensive gifts. Given his seemingly unlimited bank account, such a path to instant friendship and goodwill is apt to produce sneers from readers — not to mention reviewers — unequipped with an arsenal of platinum credit cards.
Homes says that she wanted to write about someone “who has everything and has nothing” and about the way money affects the way people live. She is insistent that the novel is not a send-up of a spiritual journey, even if it contains absurdist satirical elements in the Kurt Vonnegut mode. “I do believe that people can be effective in other people’s lives, and that it’s often easier to do something for other people than for yourself,” she says, ratifying her hero’s journey.
As for the novel’s bright, feel-good atmosphere — less American Psychothan American Softie —it’s a definite reversal for a writer known for her exploration of dark, disturbing themes in the mode of Bret Easton Ellis and Dennis Cooper. (Of The End of Alice, a novel Homes published in 1996, Rebecca Mead wrote in New York, “There’s incest, homosexual rape, sex with minors of both genders — and those are just the perversions you’ve heard of before.”) If Homes has now turned her back on such ’90s-style transgression — though traces linger in Novak’s relationship with his son — she refuses to disavow the transformation.
“In this country now, frankly I could use a little uplift,” she says, sweeping back her auburn hair. “It’s a disassociative time. The government isn’t doing its best for the people, but we’re powerless to do anything about it. I think there are a lot of Richard Novaks out there.”
If this seems a bit of a stretch, it’s because the Novak we meet at the beginning of the novel is far too removed from daily life to care about who happens to be in power in Washington. This Book Will Save Your Life is a fantasy of connectedness and hope and love greased by the kind of money few of us have, a lubricant that Homes documents but only cursorily examines. She has written a novel about L.A. that smacks of Hollywood, a movie in prose, a guilty pleasure that gives solipsism the boot. (You could see Steve Martin playing Novak, but otherwise it’s the anti-Shopgirl.) The novel’s most troubling weakness is its overall uncertainty of tone. Line by line, it’s expertly handled, but Homes’ decision to counter a tale of spiritual renewal with a landscape of geographic apocalypse ultimately feels like a cop-out. The real obstacles to self-transformation remain internal, and no amount of conflagrations and mudslides can disguise that stubborn fact.
THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE| By A.M. HOMES | Viking | 372 pages | $25 hardcover
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