Jan 24, 11
Read in January, 2011
Good novels often make me feel melancholy. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it’s because they remind me that life can change quickly and unexpectedly, and that things rarely turn out the way we hope they will. Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World gave me that same melancholy feeling. So, in other words, it was a good novel.
Since I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, at first I was thrilled by this book, pleased to be meeting new characters and watching them emerge as the pages turned. Even though the story was eventually told through four separate narrative voices, the contributions from Clare and Alice paled in comparison to the chapters seen through the eyes of Jonathan and Bobby. As far as I’m concerned, this book was always about Bobby and Jonathan.
The beginning was rich and exquisite. The latter part of the book, however…well, I’ll get to that later.
I liked Bobby and Jonathan as kids—especially Bobby. Bobby’s life was exciting. Sure his older brother was reckless and stupid, and his parents were immature and lacking in their own ways. But still Bobby’s childhood seemed happy. Jonathan, on the other hand, seemed fragile and overly sheltered by a desperate mother. Jonathan’s childhood home seemed depressing. Ominous even.
Overall, I think Cunningham did a sensational job of developing his characters—using subtle descriptions or minor actions to convey so much. Like for example, when a young Jonathan overhears his parents fighting and then finds his dad flung across the bed “like a heartbroken teenage girl.” And then Cunningham reveals the root of Jonathan’s father’s frustration in that moment by saying, “He could become other things, but he would always be that as well” (referring to his son seeing him in that state).
But my favorite scenes always seemed to involve young Bobby. I loved the way he adored his older brother, his infatuation with music, how he refused to side with his mother when she was arguing with his brother, and the way his nine-year-old brain struggled to understand his first experiences with LSD.
A few of my favorite Bobby moments:
“’I hate her,’ I say. I am not certain about that. I want to test the sound of it, to see if it’s true.”
“I want to grab handfuls of music out of the air and stuff them into my mouth.”
Some of the other passages that I enjoyed:
“The silence caught and held—one of those amicable, protracted silences that open up in casual conversations with strangers and allow all members to return, unharmed, to the familiarity of their own lives.”
“I wanted to go and comfort him, tell him it was all right. I wanted to go and pull his hair hard enough to draw blood.” (Alice’s response after finding Bobby and her son fooling around in the front seat of the car)
Ultimately, this book was about relationships, family. And all the relationships in this book seemed, eventually, to undergo a role reversal. Clare’s relationship with Bobby and Jonathan changed after she became a mother. No longer playing the “mother” role in their Hendersons’ game, she started pulling away from both of the boys she loved.
As for Alice, in Cleveland her husband was married to his movie theater. He seldom had time for her (or their son), and Alice felt like she was “no longer a main character.” But after their scene change to Arizona, Alice played the leading role—not just keeping the house in order, but also managing her sick husband’s life.
The biggest role reversal, however, involved Bobby and Jonathan. As teenagers, Bobby seemed to be the leader, and Jonathan looked to him for answers. When Jonathan spoke harshly to his mother, Bobby told him to stop. Bobby taught Jonathan how to smoke weed, shared all the latest records with him, helped Jonathan develop a new wardrobe (even letting him wear the beloved jacket that had belonged to his dead brother), and he introduced him to a life that consisted of more than just his nightly games of hearts with his mother.
As they grew older, Jonathan seemed to outgrow his dependence on Bobby, while Bobby’s character seemed to regress, becoming simpler and simpler as he got older. Eventually, Bobby seemed to be incapable of drawing his own conclusions without Clare or Jonathan there to put things in perspective for him. It was a development (or a regression) that I never fully understood. I know Bobby experienced a lot of tragedy as a child, but I got lost somewhere along the way—because I continued to be surprised by Bobby’s stunted development.
Still, Bobby remained my favorite character. He was certainly the most likable. Maybe because he remained so loyal to everyone, so reliable, completely incapable of malice. Or maybe because he wasn’t prone to the selfishness and/or bitchiness that seemed to plague the other characters (cough, Clare, cough) later in the novel.
I admit I continued to be baffled by the sexual relationship between Bobby and Jonathan. I almost feel like Cunningham did this on purpose (or maybe I’m just slow). We witnessed a couple fairly graphic scenes, but we never learned exactly how Bobby or Jonathan felt about one another. I suspect this might have been Cunningham’s way of depicting the uncertainty they must have felt as teenagers who are best friends and lovers.
But the one omission that seems particularly glaring comes when Jonathan leaves for college. He chooses NYU—which is nowhere near Cleveland. And for someone who seemed so dependent upon Bobby, it seemed like an odd choice. And it seemed like an odd choice for the author to not say anything about how this decision impacted Bobby or Jonathan—whether Jonathan was reluctant to leave his best friend, if Bobby felt abandoned, or if they even missed each other.
The story seemed to lose all its momentum when the trio moved to rural New York together. All the tension that had plagued them in the city had apparently dissipated on their drive back from Arizona. And yeah, I guess I enjoyed those moments when they were just content raising their baby and cultivating a successful roadside café. But I was also bored by the whole endeavor.
I know it sounds presumptuous to say this about a Pulitzer prize-winning author, but it almost seemed like Cunningham wasn’t sure how to conclude his story. It began as a beautiful story of two boys—both outcasts in their own right—finding each other and, through their friendship, struggling to find themselves.
But once they finally found a home for themselves…it felt too easy—too unrealistic—and then Clare left. And I thought, Okay, things are happening again. But no, not really. Instead, the prevailing tone just shifted from unrealistic to unresolved.
I don’t know that I wanted the story to continue beyond where it ended, but on the other hand, it felt strange that we never learned what Jonathan thought about Clare stealing off with their child. And Bobby, the real father, reveals he knew Clare was going to leave. And apparently he was okay with that (?), but then again, Bobby was okay with everything…
For me, Erich’s inclusion was noteworthy for two reasons: it highlighted Jonathan’s quest to find love (or to find the ideal for which he was searching), and it revealed what it must have been like for the gay community when the reality of AIDS first started to emerge (something I had never really considered).
But at the end of the book, as terrible as it sounds, I wanted Erich to hurry up and die. I felt like this story was about Jonathan and Bobby, and Erich was the unwelcome houseguest who wouldn’t go away (literally). Until he died, I felt like the story was on hold...and yet, he didn’t die (not until sometime after the story concluded).
So yeah, maybe I would have liked a little more resolution. But with characters like these, resolution didn’t quite seem possible. So perhaps the ending was perfect just the way it was, with Jonathan standing butt naked in freezing water up to his knees, realizing that he had been mistaken for living for the future, “in a state of continuing expectation,” taking an inventory of his life and concluding:
“I wouldn’t say I was happy. I was nothing so simple as happy. I was merely present, perhaps for the first time in my adult life. The moment was unextraordinary. But I had the moment, I had it completely. ... I would not die unfulfilled because I’d been here, right here and nowhere else.”
And maybe that’s good enough.
The book itself was “good enough.” Not great, but certainly worth reading.