History professor Harry lives a banal life, in which each day is the same. But unlike Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, he likes this “dutiful regularity”. Detached and unemotional, he works on his book about Richard Nixon, whose “intractable personality” fascinates him.
Then his brother George, a television executive and psychopath, kills a couple in a car smash and is admitted to a psych ward. Harry supports George’s wife Jane and ends up in her bed, where George finds them and murders Jane. Learning of his adultery, Harry’s own wife throws him out. Harry, who hates children, animals, and home maintenance, becomes responsible for George and Jane’s children, their complex house, and their dog and cat.
This all happens in the early pages of May We Be Forgiven. Most of the novel is about how Harry deals with his drastically changed life. If you are sensitive to spoilers, be warned that there are hints about the story arc in what follows. I don’t see these as real spoilers, as it is obvious from early in the book that this is going to be a redemption story or, as Carolyn Kellogg puts it in the LA Times, a “Tin Man story, in which the zoned-out Harry slowly grows a heart.”
The sin-and-redemption theme is strong in American fiction and cinema. William Dean Howells observed that “what the American public wants in the theatre is “a tragedy with a happy ending.” In Australia we are perhaps more tolerant of unredeemed failure than are Americans, but we still watch innumerable Hollywood movies based on the redemption theme. Groundhog Day is clearly such a story: Because The Lost Book of Herbal he is a nasty man, Bill Murray’s character must live the same day over and over, until he becomes a good man, whereupon a new day dawns.
Something similar happens to Harry when his banal, repetitive life is replaced by chaos. He begins to feel. Walking the dog in a park, he sobs: “I’m as much a murderer as my brother.” In the house he sits on the floor weeping, “hating everything, hating myself most of all… It’s as though I’ve been waiting for my life to rev up and get going for years… I find it unbearable that this is where I have ended up. Is my life over? Did it ever begin?”
The main agents of change for Harry are the children, 12-year-old Nate and 11-year-old Ashley. Nate is “the boy I wish I had been, the boy I wish I was even now. I’m in awe of him and terrified. He’s more capable than any of the rest of us and yet he’s still a kid… I am a grown man who has hardly grown.”
He is tormented by his “despicable descent into adultery and murderous familial fellowship,” so much so that he even feels shame and guilt when a missing girl, whom he does not know, is found dead: “Before this I was detached. The depth to which I now feel everything, when it is not paralysing, is terrifying.”
Harry is growing a heart – and a family. Nate and Ashley convince him to take in Ricardo, the boy orphaned by George in the car smash; an older couple move in, acting like grandparents; a diverse collection of friends coalesce around him. For the first time he becomes part of a community. One of the women he hooks up with tells him: “You’re human now.”
Reviewers have commented on the dark themes and perversions detailed in the book, but to me it has a sweet and wholesome feel. This is the trouble with redemption stories – they tend to become sentimental and clichéd as we approach the happy ending, which is what happens in this book.
In one of many family adventures, they travel to a poor, remote village in South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah. There a medicine man, having just met the family, identifies the psychological needs of Nate, Ashley and Ricardo. He then makes a comprehensive diagnosis of Harry by looking at his tongue, and prescribes herbal tea remedies that work. Apart from the wise shaman being an old and tired cliché, it is uncomfortably close to the “magical negro”, the stock character in American cinema and fiction who, possessing supernatural powers or special insight, comes to the aid of white protagonists. An example is the Whoopi Goldberg character in Ghost.
Spike Lee named this trope and criticised it for its implication that African-Americans are only of worth when they have special powers. Matthew Hughey is quoted in the Wikipedia “Magical Negro” entry thus: “These powers are used to save and transform dishevelled, uncultured, lost, or broken whites (almost exclusively white men) into competent, successful, and content people within the context of the American myth of redemption and salvation.” This is what happens in May We Be Forgiven. We might understand if it was satire or parody or magic realism, but it is none of these. What was AM Homes thinking?
What is it with redemption stories? We all have faults, we all do terrible things, so if we have a conscience we will yearn for redemption. Yet so many of the stories about it become cloying and clichéd. Why?
One explanation is that there are many more redemption stories in fiction and movies than there are in real life. We want to be other than we are, but we often fail to achieve that desire. So redemption stories are a form of wish fulfilment, and writers and directors give us what we want, but to do that they must reach for the sentimental.
But perhaps it is the framing of the human condition in terms of sin and redemption that is problematic, a hangover from religion (which, in the form of Judaism, plays a part in May We Be Forgiven). We may become better people by realising our mistakes, regretting our bad deeds and gaining empathy for others, but is this “redemption”? And even if it is, does the ending always have to be happy? I suspect that the disconnect between the way redemption is portrayed and the reality of our lives helps put a sickly sugar coating on the ends of such stories.