A second collection from Homes (after The Safety of Objects, 1990, coming soon to a theater near you) is focused as usual on suburban angst and extreme behavior.
This author’s particular gifts are generally better displayed in novels, where her penchant for shock effects is tempered by a covert compassion that’s usually only evident in the longer run. We glimpse it here in the more controlled stories: “The Chinese Lesson” is rich in geographic and social detail as it limns a shaky marriage between a couple uneasily transplanted to Larchmont from Manhattan (further frazzled by the presence—and worrying absences—of the wife’s “slowly evaporating” mother). The same glimpse can be gotten in “The Former First Lady and the Football Star,” a bleak but oddly tender imagining of what Nancy Reagan’s life is like now with Alzheimer’s-afflicted Ronnie. “Rockets Round the Moon” is initially even better: the 12-year-old narrator, shunted aside by his self-absorbed divorced parents, has taught himself “to be a person whom people like to have around.” He clings to the seeming normalcy of his father’s next-door neighbors until an out-of-the-blue accident dislocates them too and leads to a gory climax that Homes blows off in her most annoying manner. There are other irritants. Why muffle the impact of the “Do Not Disturb,” a harrowing portrait of an enraged cancer victim, with unexplained but insistent links to a weaker story (“Please Remain Calm”)? Why does a writer whose strength lies in depicting the weirdness of ordinary lives bother with the bad pseudo-folkloric magic of “Raft in Water, Floating” and “The Weather Outside Is Sunny and Bright”? “Georgica” (a woman masturbates while she watches couples make love on the beach, then collects the used condoms to inseminate herself) and “The Whiz Kids” (graphic gay sex, deliberately unpleasant to no apparent purpose) show Homes in her gross-out-the-squares mode. The title piece is intriguing but underdeveloped.
Far from perfect but never dull, and the author impresses as always with her willingness to take risks.