I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home: A Novel
The one and only time I met Lorrie Moore it was dark, we were outside, mosquitoes were swarming, and her back was to that algae-filled pond at Reed College where they sometimes hosted readings. I was at Reed for what I was referring to, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as “writing camp”—also known as the Tin House Writers Workshop. It was my first time doing anything really serious about my own creative writing and I was so very excited to meet Lorrie Moore. I was warned she wasn’t very friendly—and she wasn’t, which made me feel bad, but also made me realize that writers are, after all, human and it can’t be fun to be swarmed by humans and mosquitoes at the same time. And really, it’s not a writer’s job to be friendly, it’s a writer’s job to write. Now that I’ve met many, many more writers and read hundreds more books, and feel somewhat less awkward calling myself a writer, I can comfortably say that I could care less if Moore is “friendly” or not and would ask instead why is that even a consideration, because she writes books that I want to read—and not just once—and that’s all that really matters. Her 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? remains on my short list of books to give people and although I try not to be judgmental, I will judge you if you don’t love that book. Because it’s brilliant. Don’t ask me to explain why—if you’ve read it, you know why and if you “don’t get it,” well then, you don’t.
In her new novel, the story focuses on failing white middle-aged high school history teacher Finn. His beloved brother is dying and in hospice in the Bronx. His girlfriend has left him for another man (we learn later that it’s been a year). He’s somewhat in denial that he’s been asked to take a break from his teaching job for erratic behavior—namely, teaching math in his history class because, he believes, no one else at the school knows how to teach math properly. Finn is full of presumptuous pronouncements about other people, the country, life, death, and many things in between. As a protagonist, he’s as annoying as he is depressingly, fallibly human. And, of course, that’s part of the appeal. As he sits by his brother Max’s hospice bed, Finn wonders about whether they have been good brothers. “Good this. Good that. After years of teaching, Finn did not believe in good anything. He believed in Interesting, Serviceable, Dangerous, Providential, Unlucky, Cruel, Mercurial, Funny, Unreal.” Perhaps this point of view can be explained once we learn that Finn is still hopelessly, even dangerously in love with his ex-girlfriend Lily. Lily, we learn, does “laugh therapy” visiting both children and adults who need lifting “out of their gloom.” But Lily, it seems, is not a happy clown, instead she “wore floppy shoes, the laces of which she had once used to strangle herself.”
Of course, Moore’s trademark precision prose works throughout to move the story forward and ensure the reader is both laughing and crying—warning: this is a deeply emotional read. Max informs Finn that he’s losing the battle to cancer, “I thought I’d beat it…But death is a fucking genius.” Finn responds, “It’s certainly an overachiever.” He muses to himself “Who was anyone but roadkill in the face of it.” Ouch. And yes. The novel is set in 2016, Trump is on the rise and the Cubs are in the World Series. Finn decides that if he can get Max to watch the Series, he’ll “will himself to stay alive until the bitter end.” While they talk about baseball, they also talk about Lily and her desire to die, “Reciting all this to an actual dying man underscored the absurdity and mystery and mind-boggling waste of someone wanting to do themselves in.” And yet, Finn decides, he could see “how it might be all you could think of.” Finn has already decided to sit and watch the Series with Max until it’s over. Max encourages him to talk and Finn spouts various conspiracy theories (the moon landing, the lone gunman, John Wilkes Booth’s body) leaning in close to his fading brother: “You told me this one: The real story is never the official one. So we must imagine skeptically around the corners and over the walls.” Gradually reality begins a sort of slippage hinting at more to come: Finn goes out to find a nurse and get some juice for Max “Suddenly Max appeared at his side” and then just as quickly he disappears. Finn realizes he’s imagined this moment but he’s already traveling down a road where the boundary lines between reality and other possibilities become blurred almost to non-existence. In thinking about his dead mother, Finn muses, “memories were often tampered with before they were put back on their shelves. Stories, told enough times, replaced the memories which, once uttered, dissipated and remodeled themselves.”
Although Finn’s promised he’ll stay with his brother until the end, when he gets a cryptic text from a friend of Lily’s, he rushes back home, asking his brother to wait for him. It’s a jarring moment in the book and perhaps meant to illustrate just how obsessed Finn is with Lily to the detriment of everything else in his life. He drives home through the night, loses control of his car and ends up in a field, his phone dead, and walks to a farmhouse where a dozen or so people are working at computer monitors (this scene is never explained though it’s reminiscent of conspiracy theory fiction). Eventually Finn’s rescued by a tow truck driver and makes his way back home where he vaguely registers the rising political climate—Trump yard signs hinting at the country’s coming madness. When he arrives at Sigrid’s house (his boss’s wife and a friend of Lily’s), she tells him that Lily’s drowned herself in the shower and that she’s already been buried at a green cemetery. Mad with grief, he drives out to the cemetery where in the rising dark he hears a voice say, “I was hoping you’d get here soon.” Lily is standing in the shroud she was buried in, her mouth full of dirt but “crazed death had not yet made a stranger of her.” Although they’d buried her in her clown shoes and there is the occasional worm, Lily claims she’s “death-adjacent.” Together they drive away in his car—ostensibly headed for the body farm in Knoxville where she’d wanted her body donated. Whether the journey is actually happening isn’t the point—as Finn says, “insanity had come to him and caught them both in this strange late dusk dream, which was like a daydream but with more solidity, less light, and more doubt.” They drive through the night and Finn muses that he “had been beguiled briefly from mourning.”
Despite Lily’s gradual physical decay, this isn’t a zombie story—it’s a strange multi-layered ghost story. There are brief interruptions in the main narrative from a series of letters a woman, Elizabeth, is writing to her dead sister. In these letters it’s revealed Elizabeth keeps a boarding house and one of her guests is a handsy and devious “gentleman boarder”—a thespian on the run. Gradually we glean that the boarder may or may not be John Wilkes Booth and Elizabeth is the real reason there’s so much confusion around Booth’s body. The language in these letters shifts beautifully into nineteenth century prose and I found myself wanting to go back and read the letters apart from Finn’s story. At first, the connective tissue between the two narratives seems slight—Finn’s brief mention of conspiracy theories about Booth at Max’s bedside—until Finn and Lily arrive at a rambling remote inn somewhere on the way to Knoxville. The inn is sinking into mold and rot but in their bedroom is a bookcase that holds the journal filled with Elizabeth’s letters (which Finn steals) and the windows of the house are the same “ambrotypes” Elizabeth writes about using to repair broken window panes. But there is a larger connective thread between these two seemingly disparate stories: a deep longing for a lost loved one. Elizabeth writes letter after letter to her dead sister, an absence so unbearable she can’t accept the death. For Finn, Lily’s death and semi-resurrection doesn’t bring him any closure, instead it solidifies his grief and when he leaves her at the body farm, he realizes that, in his absence, his brother Max has died. Finn travels back north for Max’s funeral and although he feels his brother’s presence, Finn admits that he is now truly alone. But really, that’s not the point—not for Finn or Lily or any of us because, as Moore writes: “It seemed amazing, given everything, that men and women could love one another in any way whatsoever. So when it was managed—when it existed here and there in all its precariousness—was that not a beautiful bit of ruin?”