The Unfolding by AM Homes review – a storyline undercut by events

Republican plotters conspire to seize power in a slippery and elusive tale

AM Homes specialises in characters, mostly men, who find themselves unexpectedly unmoored from the American way of life. Whether it be Harry in her previous novel – the 2013 Women’s prize for fiction winner May We Be Forgiven – in bed with his sister-in-law when his brother beats her to a pulp with a table lamp. Or stock-trading millionaire Richard in This Book Will Save Your Life, who after a maybe, maybe not heart attack finds himself hanging with the Hindu owner of the local doughnut shop. Her latest hero – known only as “the Big Guy” – is similarly up against it. In a novel running very precisely from election day in November 2008 to Barack Obama’s inauguration day in January 2009, this lifelong Republican donor is struggling with the idea of a black man sleeping in “his” White House.

Intent on righting what he believes is an egregious wrong, he builds around him a group of like-minded, like-resourced Republicans who will do whatever it takes to ensure the US never makes the same mistake again. But Democrats are not his only problem: the Big Guy’s wife is sliding into alcoholism while his 18-year-old daughter – after proudly casting her first vote for John McCain – is also starting to unravel. Riding her beloved gelding in the woods back at her elite east coast boarding school, Meghan encounters an injured doe. A 911 summons – her Pavlovian sense of entitlement demands an instant clean-up – only worsens the situation (euthanised doe, bolting horse, hours lost in the woods). But rather than driving her towards her father’s authoritarianism, it instead elicits the beginnings of empathy in her half-unformed soul.

Meanwhile, with his wife removed to the Betty Ford clinic (this despite a sudden renewal of their sex life: “Bang, bang, bang, it’s like a mafia hit”), the Big Guy is free to assemble his merry band of insurgents. It’s a journey that takes him to ever more bizarre meetings, including one in a Korean massage parlour with a “general” known as either Baldy or Barry, who may or may not be able to provide the requisite manpower if “in the event of decapitation ... we don’t all go Humpty Dumpty”. Over the complimentary pedicure, the general assures him: “We are prepared. Like an alien life form – we walk among you ... the provisions of the constitution take too much for granted.”

At first this oblique, metaphorical banter has a seductive silliness: these conspirators know what they’re talking about and the reader is invited to eavesdrop, even if we don’t yet possess the codebook. But by the third or fourth conclave, you can’t help but feel such doggedly non-specific language is militating against the narrative: what exactly are they planning and when and how? When one of them finally blurts out: “Sometimes I just wish you boys would speak English”, it’s hard not to agree. Maybe those who spend their days in the world of Fox News and Wall Street Journal op-eds can instinctively parse this material and thus enjoy its satirical remodelling, but I found it far too slippery, too inconclusive.

Into all this re-emerges the Big Guy’s wife, sober now, but pot-smoking and bi-curious, demanding that the “family secret” be revealed to their daughter. But any good literary surprise needs be followed by a chance for the reader to decompress and knit together all those nicely camouflaged clues that prefaced it. In this instance, beyond her mother’s alcoholism (and the Big Guy seems cause enough for that), there’s little or no foreshadowing and the resulting story twist seems to have arrived from another book.

What’s more, the time setting seems strange on two counts. Yes, Christmas 2008 was a political shock – but the far bigger shock reverberating round the world at the time was surely the financial meltdown. These people are all super-rich, so why isn’t there a single mention of what it might be doing to their trust funds? And then there’s the conspiracy itself: in interviews, Homes tells us it was conceived and written before the Donald threw his comb-over into the ring. So, with her storyline undercut by events, we seem to be left with a nostalgic plea for ordinary decent plotters who might have had the decency to seize power the old-fashioned way with tanks and marines instead of mesmerising half the country with Twitter and then sending in shamans and Proud Boys to storm the citadel. It feels like a strange compromise.

• The Unfolding by AM Homes is published by Granta (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Jonathan Myerson

The GuardianTramp

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