home_at_the_end

BY ERIC MARKOWSKY

Author: Michael Cunningham

Picador, 1998

Best ebook deal: Mobipocket

Filed under: Literary

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Anyone who’s read The Hours might be interested in taking a look back at the beginning of the career of a contemporary master.  Cunningham’s first novel never received the same attention as his later work, but it does contain one chapter that was excerpted as the short story “White Angel,” earning the young author a Best American Award.  The excerpt, which I read before the novel, is now one of my all time favorite stories.  In fact, it’s by far the best thing in the entire book. It’s the novel’s greatest asset and it’s biggest flaw; A Home at the End of the World never quite surpasses the watermark set by one of its earliest chapters.  Still, it’s hard to judge a book too harshly for setting the mark so high.  

The novel relates the lives of Bobby and Jonathan, two boys lost in a seemingly eternal Cleveland.  They just can’t manage to figure out what they should be doing with their lives, and, more importantly, whom they should be doing it with.  From their lonely childhoods through their adolescent love affair, into the worlds of Manhattan and rural upstate New York, the pair follows their desire for belonging to a truly unconventional home.  With their friend Clare, and against the advice of Jonathan’s mother, Alice, they attempt to forge a family life befitting their feelings for one another.

Already in his first novel, Cunningham’s facility with language, multiple points of view, and narrative time are all evident.  Where A Home at the End of the World misses the mark is not in its execution but in its conception.  The premise is interesting though static, leading to a plot driven ahead by action that seems at times unnecessary or contrived.

This makes for interesting and dramatic moments, but it isn’t always clear how these moments hang together.  Each scene remains entirely readable purely on the strength of the humor, insight, and compassion of the writing; each character/narrator is a complete and compelling creation; yet the disparate elements fail to add up to a satisfying whole the way I found The Hours did.

I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who admires Cunningham’s later work, or anyone who simply admires a well-turned sentence.  A Home at the End of the World is full of polished gems, beautiful descriptions and brutal insights, but it also highlights how far a good writer still has to go to write a great novel.

Suggested reading: The Hours (Cunningham), The Lazarus Project (Hemon)

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