I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home: A novel
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home might be described as a necroscape or “the big adieu,” with dying and dead characters sprinkled liberally throughout the three interspersed plots. While the work nips at the edge of a horror story or a gothic tale, the intense relationships steer it away from the surreal. Even so, the novel often veers into the strange and eludes classification.
The first chapter begins in 1871, with letters Elizabeth is writing to her dead sister about the lodgers in Elizabeth’s boardinghouse, one of whom, Jack, is theatrical and uncouthly flirtatious (note: these short letters are composed in the style of the period and appear sporadically).
Then we begin with the 2016 section, which is the primary narrative. This features a recently fired teacher, Finn, who is visiting his dying brother Max in an in-patient hospice facility in the Bronx. The two attempt to converse, with Finn desperately trying to convey his feelings for Max, and Max attempting to make verbal sense despite the pain and the painkillers. In the midst of their visit, Finn receives an urgent message to return home because of his girlfriend, Lily (they were separated a year prior). Finn tells his brother to hang on until he can come back.
When Finn arrives, he learns that Lily has drowned herself in the shower. While she tried this suicidal method before, this time Lily is dead. Well, sort of. Finn finds her in the cemetery, wearing the clown outfit she donned to cheer sick children. Lily insists he must drive her south to “the body farm,” her ecologically preferred final resting place. This begins a bizarre road trip and pages of dialogue in which the two banter and recollect memories of their relationship. Finn doesn’t seem to mind that Lily’s body is rotting: infested with bugs, with sloughing skin, and other visceral signs of decay, which Moore renders in graphic detail (some readers might find these passages discomfiting). Regardless of her condition, Finn still loves Lily; Lily’s feelings toward Finn are more ambiguous, as she physically is.
They stop at an ancient B&B on South Sunken Road, the same place owned by Elizabeth in 1871. This convergence loosely knits two plot strands together and continues the ghost concept as Lily’s semi-real phantom self is present, and Finn finds Elizabeth’s letters to her dead sister. However, Max’s story has been dropped by now, which is regrettable because his continued presence would have unified the book. As is, the work relies on Finn’s narration and the through-line themes about grief and loss, death and dying, and possessing the unpossessable.
Lorrie Moore is a renowned writer of literary short stories and novels, the last of which appeared 14 years ago. This book avoids neat resolution—the elliptical title aptly illustrates this quality—and is also stuffed with wry humor. Finn describes Max’s hospital room: “There were a few bent flowers and cards on a side table. Max had not made a particularly good haul for a dying person.” Or Elizabeth comments about her lodger: “I have a vague affection for him, which is not usable enough for marriage.” En route, Finn observes: “They passed a large billboard that read ‘God Bless You,’ as if someone had sneezed.” And in “the rearview mirror . . . was a little landscape painting of the very recent past.” A puckish line from the “dead” Lily: “‘I’m sorry to be so perishable.’”
There are many stylistic beauties. Finn “believed time was a strange ocean through which we imagined we were swimming rather than understanding we were being randomly tossed.” An enigmatic remark by Lily: “‘We were each other to each other.’” Finn’s memory of being with Lily: the “moments of happiness . . . the summer ones with zithering crickets and the trilling notes of their own laughter, the steady speeding together into the aheadedness . . .” Yet, some of the writing feels over the top: “‘Life is very little. It’s kind of a canary coop. A speck in the air.’” “Nonsense such as this floated past the front of his brain like a crop duster trailing banner ads.” A few of the Finn/Lily dialogues seem jokey and on the edge of too clever, though Moore often lands great lines with aplomb.
The reader may wish for a little less of the “comic” patter, so that the sparkling conversational lines aren’t buried. And while their journey has a dream-like quality, “as if the road were wrapped in Lily’s death shroud,” a more cohesive structure—including more about Max—might benefit the book. Like Lily herself, the novel seems to unravel, yet it is replete with pages of brilliant dialogue and beautifully rendered glimpses into Finn’s thoughts and feelings.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is a literary creation that’s worth reading regardless of its challenges. And in this age of poor design, typesetting, and production, kudos to Knopf for upholding their tradition of fine typography, crisp printing, and their trademark use of deckled edges.