PRAISE FOR UNPREDICTABLE PROSE A. M. Homes' stories turn everyday life into surrealistic circus


Chevy Chase - The meeting has the makings of an A. M. Homes short story. First, there's the setting: an ersatz 1950s diner in suburbia. Then, the plot: A young author, over hot tea with milk, struggles to make sense of her life and work. The characters: a Southern waiter rhapsodizing about buttermilk, Connie Francis warbling over the jukebox and our funny, articulate protagonist, Amy Homes, who discusses everything from sex to humility to how she published two books and nearly got sued by J. D. Salinger, all before turning 30.

Sometimes, truth -- or life -- really is stranger than fiction.

Unless, of course, it's Ms. Homes' fiction. In that case, fiction often reflects the strange, painful world of everyday. The one where a mother succumbs to feelings of despair and hatred for her comatose child, where a teen-age boy secretly falls in love with his sister's Barbie, where a lawyer regularly vents his frustrations by urinating on his boss' potted plant.

Her work is often set in modern-day suburbia -- a bland world of malls, McDonald's and Nintendo games that makes her characters' behavior all the more startling. In "Adults Alone," for instance, a couple goes on a crack-smoking frenzy after sending the kids to Grandmother's for the weekend.

"I'm certainly not trying to shock," explains Ms. Homes, who looks younger than her 28 years. "I write about the parts of people you don't necessarily see and the parts we all don't necessarily own up to. But in everybody they're there. And if people find them shocking, it's probably because there's some identification."

This month, as two books by Ms. Homes hit the stores -- "The Safety of Objects," her first collection of short stories, and the paperback version of her first novel, "Jack" -- reviewers have begun comparing her with writers like John Cheever and Virginia Woolf, and even more surprisingly, to film and TV director David Lynch. Her short stories are "literary puzzles for the 'Twin Peaks' crowd," wrote a reviewer in the New York Times.

Ms. Homes is flattered by the comparisons, but makes one small confession: "I've never seen 'Twin Peaks,' " she says sheepishly.

A waiter with a Southern drawl drops off her tea and lingers to discuss, of all things, the wonders of buttermilk. So smooth, so creamy, so darned delicious. "Want to try some?" he asks.

"No thanks," she replies curiously. And as he walks away, Ms. Homes can't resist turning her writer's eye toward the incident, using it as proof that life, indeed, can sometimes be as strange as her fiction. "Surrealism in everyday life," she whispers.

As you talk to Amy Homes, you get the sense that she's slightly bewildered by the recognition she's now receiving. In conversation, she's infinitely more relaxed talking about pre-made chocolate milk ("It's like drinking liquid velvet") or humility ("What is humility? Is it the underlying sense that actually you probably do su--?") than success.

She took up writing, she says, as a way to escape her hometown of Chevy Chase. "Suburbia is an interesting place, but it's not terribly exciting," she explains. "I wanted to get out of my parents' house . . . and I started thinking: 'How am I going to get out of here?' The only way I'm going to get out is to write my way out."

After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Maryland for a day and a half. "The parking lot was so far from the classrooms," she jokes. "I said, 'This is not worth the walk.' "

Then it was on to American University, where a play she wrote, "The Call-In Hour," brought the wrath of author J. D. Salinger. The work featured Holden Caulfield, the legendary character in Mr. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," as a real person who decided to confront the public on a radio show. She sent the play to theaters around the country. To her surprise, Source Theater in Washington decided to stage it.

Enter Salinger's representatives.

Having caught wind of the play, they wrote and told her she was infringing on copyright laws. The story attracted national press. Her hair literally began to fall out. Rather than risk a threatened lawsuit, she revised the piece.

In 1985, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in New York and went on to receive her master's from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Baltimore author and professor Madison Smartt Bell, who worked with her there, says, "She has a flair for making deep perversities seem very interesting and meaningful. . . . It's hard to predict what she'll do. But that's what interests me about her, the idea she's completely unpredictable."

Ms. Homes is acutely aware, however, that her work is not for everyone.

"My grandmother, who's 90, has asked me 250 times, 'So what does this mean, 'The Safety of Objects?' " she says.

Ms. Homes is even more reluctant to hear her grandmother's response to stories like "Chunky in Heat," where a fat teen-age girl masturbates on a backyard lawn chair.

"Sex to me is so interesting because it's one of those things everybody does and nobody wants to talk about," she says. Yet, writing about it without self-censorship was not easy. "I had to force myself in a big way to not think: 'What are people going to think?' As soon as you start doing that, you can't write."

The new-found attention has brought subtle changes in her life. She can no longer walk her dog Alfie through the streets of her Greenwich Village neighborhood in her pajamas. "Before nobody noticed," she says. "Now people sort of know who I am."

As for the future, she's just finished another novel tentatively titled "In a Country of Mothers" about a psychologist who confuses a patient with the daughter she gave up for adoption.

But true success is something that Amy Homes believes still eludes her. "There is no thing as success. There's only disaster. That's not real productive, but I do think like that. . . . I'm always waiting for some horrible thing to happen. It's not that I'm not glad when good things happen. I am glad. But the good things are scary because somehow they can be taken away."

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