A Home at the End of the World. Michael Cunningham.

Cunningham, Michael. A Home at the End of the World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1990. HarperCollins e-books edition. F; 5/16.

I was enchanted enough by The Hours, Cunningham’s most successful novel, to take a look at something else of his. This wasn’t in the same league for me but still showed the graceful literary style that I fell for in the later book. Here that charm carried me through the early chapters and took over again near the end, but wasn’t enough to overcome mildly dreary plot events through the middle of the story and to sustain the kind of consistent amazement I experienced with The Hours.

Bobby and Jonathan are approximate contemporaries who appear at the age of five in ordinary families in Cleveland. Disturbing loss occurs for both of them independently. They collide in adolescence drinking and doing drugs, and have a homosexual connection before Jonathan moves to New York, eventually to be joined by Bobby. An unusual partly-platonic triangle falls into place with slightly older Clare. They all move to small-town upstate New York, open a restaurant, and live in an old house.

Personal, professional, family, and romantic difficulties dominate most of the middle of the story. Partly because of the time-placement in the 1970s I identified with some of these struggles, having myself been without direction and psychologically alone during some of those years, which could colour my response to this part of the plot. It isn’t about unusually talented or famous people and doesn’t contain much in the way of major historic events to distract from the blues and frustration of trying to make life work out in early adulthood. Both boys’ parents lived in the generation where convention seemed to prevent some of this ennui. As Jonathan’s mother Alice says:

The trouble with and even-tempered union is that it refuses to crack – at no point does injustice or hardheartedness provide an opening through which you could walk aimlessly into another way of being.

But there’s no such salvation, however superficial, for Bobby, Jonathan and Clare trying to find their way.

Cunningham, who is gay, and handles the homosexual theme in The Hours so gracefully that it almost escapes notice, here, possibly because of the era in which he is writing, it’s a bit more in our faces. It’s hard to imagine taking issue with this, but it’s slight self-consciousness for me contributed to slowing the plot’s flow which otherwise maintains dramatic momentum. As Bobby says as a young teenager:

The secret of flight is this – you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws. I swear it to this day.

Significantly easier said than done. There is more than enough here to hold interest, but reading it having experienced its successor probably imposed on me an unreasonable expectation. 8.4/9.2

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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