“Things You Should Know” by A.M. Homes

Urgent, hungry stories about the nightmare of suburban marriage (and one hilarious visit to a lonely Nancy Reagan), courtesy of a master of the form.

Topics: Books,

I’d bet a decent sum of money that husbands and wives in A.M. Homes’ short stories are more honest with each other than most real couples. In Homes’ latest collection, “Things You Should Know,” they say things like, “I need to be married to someone who is like a potted plant, someone who needs nothing,” or “You don’t love me enough,” or “I want to die.” There are few formalities, even less bullshit, no making nice for the sake of appearances. In some ways, it’s unbelievably refreshing. Even when these people end up hurting each other (as they always do), the tempo of Homes’ dialogue seems to carry her characters to a cool, open space, and you the reader, follow along as they blaze the trail.

Yet, the trail goes in circles. Those four-word sentences seem to sit there on the page, brilliant in their own simple candor, yet completely useless when it comes to connecting two people. Many of the couples seem to have just woken up one morning and realized that they don’t really know each other. In “The Chinese Lesson,” for instance, Geordie grasps that he doesn’t understand his wife, Susan, only after her ailing mother moves into their home. Still, these stories aren’t dreary or depressing; they’re urgent and hungry. As the suicidal narrator in “Please Remain Calm” explains: “It is about love. It is about getting enough, having enough, drowning in it, and now it is too late. I am permanently malnourished — there isn’t enough love in the world.”

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“Hurry up, love me, because we’re all going to die,” Homes’ characters seem to be pleading. “Fix it.” Often we don’t know what these people look like or what they do for a living or even what their names are. Instead, their voices identify them as Desperate (usually the husband) and Detached (the icy female), a match made in hell, unhappily hurtling toward a (usually physical) catastrophe. Such plotlines may sound numbingly hopeless, but Homes is too daring, too quick and too precise to let even the typical tale of suburban despair (“Raft in Water, Floating”) lull you into a stupor of sadness.

In spite of her characters’ relentless honesty, Homes reveals how impossible it is for people to know each other. In “Do Not Disturb,” the wife is a doctor, and she has ovarian cancer. “I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer,” says her husband, the narrator, “but I don’t know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch.” He subscribes to the cliché that imminent death turns evil people into good ones, when actually it exposes the most extreme version of our true selves. When his wife finds her husband splayed out on the hotel bathroom floor after a fall, she says robotlike to the concerned cleaning woman: “He is not paralyzed. I am his wife, I am a doctor. I would know if there was something really wrong.” This man hates his dying wife, and in the end Homes confirms that he probably should.

In “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero,” perhaps the most entertaining of the 11 stories (the book is worth buying for this story alone), Homes imagines the life of Nancy Reagan, her movie-star/world-leader husband deteriorating into a child. “N.R.” determinedly marches on, inwardly crumbling to pieces, while shopping on Rodeo Drive and flirting in chat rooms. Her crush? A biker: EZRIDER69.

“Things You Should Know” isn’t all husbands and wives — there are dangerous and abandoned adolescents, a father who torches himself in a ditch in his backyard. In “Georgica,” a weirdly triumphant story, a 30ish woman distributes condoms around her beachfront hometown. At night, outfitted with night-vision goggles, she scouts out fumbling lifeguards and their blond girlfriends, rushing to where they made love so she can steal their used condoms and inseminate herself. As in many of Homes’ stories, the idea is initially creepy and horrifying. But soon it seems twisted in a very normal way.

Our next pick: A bereaved man becomes obsessed with the riddle of a great silent film star’s disappearance

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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