June 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Music for Torching

Current Status
In Season
A.M. Homes
We gave it a B-

If nothing else, A.M. Homes has great timing. Her much-hyped previous novel, a tale of two pedophiles called ”The End of Alice,” cashed in on a surge of national anxiety about sex predators. Her new novel, ”Music for Torching,” touches on gun violence in suburban schools. It was written before Littleton and was clearly inspired by earlier school atrocities, but since it’s set in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., it plays into the gathering sense that something’s rotten in suburbia (no news to readers of American fiction of the past 30 or 40 years).

”Music for Torching” is a better, funnier, less force-fed novel than ”Alice,” even though it’s so choppily written that it’s often music for skimming. It’s a variation on Homes’ patented theme of stir-crazy adolescents in pathological suburbs, but this time most of the characters are middle-aged adults.

In ”Music for Torching,” Paul Weiss has sex with Elaine (both are protagonists from Homes’ 1990 collection, ”The Safety of Objects”), with the mother of his kid’s friend, and with the whimsical girlfriend of a party guest. He also inexplicably shaves off all his body hair and starts wearing women’s nightgowns to bed. Elaine, meanwhile, is swept into a steamy, disheveled lesbian affair with a neighbor who had seemed to be the immaculate archetype of a suburban housewife.

All these antics are conveyed in short telegraphic paragraphs, so the effect is of rapid-fire satire bordering on bedroom farce — a caustic and giddy caricature of hollow, haywire suburbanites. But Homes also wants us to take her characters seriously, even if she doesn’t quite manage it herself. She not only catalogs the debris of their lives but registers their regrets, anxieties, and short parental attention spans and asks us to care about what happens to them. But Paul and Elaine are too numb and too dumb. They’re not much more than crash-test dummies, which is why Homes can’t make the final crash, when it comes, count.

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