May We Be Forgiven recounts a year in the life of Harold Silver, a man who admits at the outset that he has no emotional life. The events of the turbulent year render a change in Harold, and who wouldn't be changed if: his brother George had a breakdown before (or after) causing a car accident that killed a couple and injured their son; he slept with his sister-in-law Jane; he witnessed George kill Jane when George found Harold and Jane in bed; he assumed guardianship of his 12-year-old nephew Nate and his 11-year-old niece Ashley, whom he soon learned had been sexually abused by an administrator at her boarding school; started frequenting on-line sex sites and arranging noon assignations with randy women; got fired from his job teaching Nixon studies at a commuter college; got divorced; was followed home from the A&P by a young woman with whom he tried to strike up a meaningful relationship despite the fear that she might be a missing college student much in the news; became a foster parent to Ricardo, the child whose parents were killed in George's car accident; served as a dupe in a government sting designed to take down an Israeli gun dealer George had gone into business with at the bizarre nature-camp-cum-prison where he had been confined; through one of his "nooners," gained an acquaintance with Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who hired him to edit the long-lost fiction writings of Richard Nixon; took the children to South Africa for Nate's bar mitzvah; had the book he's been working on for 17 years destroyed in a thunderstorm.
And there's more . . . much more (the book is nearly 500 pages). Some of it is mordantly funny; Homes is at her sarcastic best when describing Harold's attempts to deal with institutions, from the mental hospital where George is confined to the justice system, child welfare system, assisted living facility where Harold's mother lives, temple, and university. Some of it borders on the surreal, some is creepy (I may be too old to appreciate Harold's sexual antics). Overall, I found it all to be a bit too much, which may have been Homes's intent, as the book is in part a critique of the excess of contemporary American life.
I (certified despiser of Nixon) did enjoy the elements of May We Be Forgiven that related to Harold's work on Nixon, whom he both loved and saw as the destroyer of the American Dream, another of Homes's themes. Harold's struggle to construct the authentic deeply flawed Nixon and to maintain his feeling for Nixon in the face of thorough understanding also represent his struggle to accept himself and the members of his family.
Finally, it must be said that May We Be Forgiven feels like it should be two books (which would also help with the "too much" aspect of the reading experience)--a sardonic look at contemporary American life and the death of the American dream and a warm-hearted story on the theme of "only connect." The ending of the book is disconcertingly smarmy, as Harold enjoys Thanksgiving in the bosom of the family he has managed to create from pieces left behind by others. Somehow, this redemptive ending just doesn't work.
In all families we have the official version, the tacitly agreed-upon narrative that we tell about who we are and where we come from.
Can I allow myself to know what I know and still love Nixon as deeply as I do? Can I accept how flawed, how unresolved he was, the enormous fissures in personality, in belief, in morality?