A Home at the End of the World – Michael Cunningham

AHATEOTW 2This coming-of-age novel is narrated in the first person, with the narrator changing in each chapter. Bobby and Jonathan are the main narrators, but several chapters are narrated by Alice, Jonathan’s mother, and Clare.

Bobby had grown up in a home in suburban Cleveland, Ohio during the 1960s and 1970s where partying and drugs were a recurring theme. He has already witnessed the death of his mother and beloved older brother by the time he befriends Jonathan, who comes from a sheltered family. After Bobby finds his father is dead, Jonathan’s family takes him in.

Bobby and Jonathan become best friends, and also experiment sexually. The two eventually lose touch, but meet up again in their 20s in 1980s New York, where Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his eccentric roommate Clare. Clare had planned to have a baby with openly gay Jonathan, but Bobby and Clare become lovers, while Jonathan still has feelings for Bobby. Clare and Bobby have a baby and move to a country home together with Jonathan.

The trio form their own unusual family, questioning traditional definitions of family and love, while dealing with the complications of their love triangle.

AHATEOTW 3Quotations:

We gathered at dusk on the darkening green. I was give. The air smelled of newly cut grass, and the sand traps were luminous. My father carried me on his shoulders. I was both pilot and captive of his enormity. My bare legs thrilled to the sandpaper of his cheeks, and I held on to his ears, great soft shells that buzzed minutely with hair.

“We’d hoped vaguely to fall in love but hadn’t worried much about it, because we’d thought we had all the time in the world. Love seemed so final, and so dull — love was what ruined our parents. Love had delivered them to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous jobs and the fluorescent aisles of supermarkets at two in the afternoon.”

Here was another lesson in my continuing education: like other illegal practices, love between boys was best treated as a commonplace. Courtesy demanded that one’s fumbling, awkward performance be no occasion for remark, as if in fact one had acted with the calm expertise of a born criminal.

“once, when she passed me in the hall on her way to the bathroom, she stopped long enough to stroke my hair. She didn’t speak. She looked at me as if she was standing on a platform in a flat, dry country and I was pulling away on a train that travelled high into an alpine world.”

”Its outbuildings are anchored on a sea of swaying wheat, its white clapboard is molten in the late, hazy light.”

“A baby has no subvert life, and by comparison everyone else you know seems cloaked, muffled, and full of sad little tricks.”

“I wanted a settled life and a shocking one.”

“Really, I think staying is the cowardly thing.”

AHATEOTW “I was not ladylike, nor was I manly. I was something else altogether. There were so many different ways to be beautiful.”

“The secret of flight is this — you have to do it immediately, before your body realizes it is defying the laws.”

“we become the stories we tell ourselves”

“Perhaps, in the extravagance of youth, we give away our devotions easily and all but arbitrarily, on the mistaken assumption that we’ll always have more to give.”

“This is what you do. You make a future for yourself out of the raw material at hand.”

“Here is what unsayable about us: Jonathan and I are members of a team so old nobody else could join even if we wanted them to. What binds us is stronger than sex. It is stronger than love. We’re related. Each of us is the other born into a different flesh.”

“I’m talking about a little truth-in-packaging here. To be perfectly frank, you don’t quite look like yourself. And if you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s life.”

I shrugged again, and smiled. “This is my life,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like the wrong one.”

“I am beginning to understand the true difference between youth and age. Young people have time to make plans and think of new ideas. Older people need their whole energy to keep up with what’s already been set in motion.”

“We’d hoped for love of a different kind, love that knew and forgave our human frailty but did not miniaturize our grander ideas of ourselves.”

“I’m not this unusual,” she said. “It’s just my hair.”

She looked at Bobby and she looked at me, with an expression at once disdainful and imploring. She was forty, pregnant, and in love with two men at once. I think what she could not abide was the zaniness of her life. Like many of us, she had grown up expecting romance to bestow dignity and direction.

“Be brave,” I told her. Bobby and I stood before her, confused and homeless and lacking a plan, beset by an aching but chaotic love that refused to focus in the conventional way. Traffic roared behind us. A truck honked its hydraulic horn, a monstrous, oceanic sound. Clare shook her head, not in denial but in exasperation. Because she could think of nothing else to do, she began walking again, more slowly, toward the row of trees.”

“I was living my own future and my brother’s lost one as well. I represented him here just as he represented me there, in some unguessable other place. His move from life to death might resemble my stepping into the kitchen – into its soft nowhere quality and foggy hum. I breathed the dark air. If I had at that moment a sense of calm kindly death while my heart beat and my lungs expanded, he might know a similar sense of life in the middle of his ongoing death.”

“Man,” he said, “I’m not afraid of graveyards. The dead are just, you know, people who wanted the same things you and I want.”
“What do we want?” I asked blurrily.
“Aw, man, you know,” he said. “We just want, well, the same things these people wanted.”
“What was that?”
He shrugged. “To live, I guess,” he said.”

“How are you feeling, man?” he asks me.

“Great,” I tell him, and it is purely the truth. Doves clatter up out of a bare tree and turn at the same instant, transforming themselves from steel to silver in the snow-blown light. I know at that moment that the drug is working. Everything before me has become suddenly, radiantly itself. How could Carlton have known this was about to happen? “Oh,” I whisper. His hand settles on my shoulder.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

I am not afraid. I am astonished. I had not realized until this moment how real everything is. A twig lies on the marble at my feet, bearing a cluster of hard brown berries. The broken-off end is raw, white, fleshly. Trees are alive.

“I’m here,” Carlton says again, and he is.”

“I suppose at heart it was the haircut that did it; that exploded the ordinary order of things and showed me the possibilities that had been there all along, hidden among the patterns in the wallpaper. In a different age, we used to take acid for more or less the same reason.”

“You don’t necessarily meet a lot of people in this world. Not when you let yourself get distracted by music and the passing of hours.”

“I wanted a settled life and a shocking one. Think of Van Gogh, cypress trees and church spires under a sky of writhing snakes. I was my father’s daughter. I wanted to be loved by someone like my tough judicious mother and I wanted to run screaming through the headlights with a bottle in my hand. That was the family curse. We tended to nurse flocks of undisciplined wishes that collided and canceled each other out. The curse implied that if we didn’t learn to train our desires in one direction or another we were likely to end up with nothing. Look at my father and mother today.

I married in my early twenties. When that went to pieces I loved a woman. At both of those times and at other times, too, I believed I had focused my impulses and embarked on a long victory over my own confusion. Now, in my late thirties, I knew less than ever about what I wanted. In place of youth’s belief in change I had begun to feel a nervous embarrassment that ticked inside me like a clock. I’d never meant to get this far in such an unfastened condition. (p.142)”

“It was either the wind or the spirit of the house itself, briefly unsettled by our nocturnal absence but to old to be surprised by the errands born from the gap between what we can imagine and what we can in fact create.”

“He seemed to believe that from such humble, inert elements as flour, shortening, and drab little envelopes of yeast, life itself could be produced.”

“He moved in a world of chaos of self, fearful and astonished to be here, right here, alive in a pine-paneled bedroom.”

“I knew how I sounded – slow and oafish, like the cousin who gets ditched and goes on playing alone, as if he’d planned it that way. I couldn’t quite tell her about the daily beauty, how I didn’t tire of seeing 6 a.m. light on the telephone wires. When I was younger, I’d expected to grow out of the gap between the self I knew and what I heard myself say. I’d expected to feel more like one single person.”

“You don’t necessarily meet a lot of people in this world. Not when you let yourself get distracted by music and the passing of hours.”

“I had blundered again, obscurely, and rather than go on worrying over my behavior, I decided to just give in and dislike Alice.”

“Unfamiliar insects produced a soft but insistent chirp; a crisp whir like the sound the earth itself might make rolling through the darkness if we all kept quiet enough to hear it. The lights of the condominium complex shone. They were not far away. Still, they looked almost too real and close to touch. They were like holes punched in the night, leaking light from another, more animated world. For a moment I could imagine what it would be like to be a ghost—to walk forever through a silence deeper than silence, to apprehend but never quite reach the lights of home.”

“I used to want to be a cheerleader,” I told them. “Before I decided to just go to hell.”

“This moment may come to us all, at some point in our eventutal move from health into sickness. We abandon our old obligation to consider the needs of others, and give ourselves up to their care. There is a shift in status. We become citizens of a new realm, and although we retain the best and worst of our former selves we are no longer bodily in command of our fates.”
“I’ve been just wondering lately, if this is, you know, it. An apartment and a steady job and some people to love. What more could I want?”

“I had lived until then for the future in a state of continuing expectation, and the process came suddenly to a stop while I stood nude with Bobby and Erich in a shallow platter of freezing water. . . . I was nothing so simple as happy. I was merely present, perhaps for the first time in my adult life.”

“I realized that if I died soon I would have known this, a connection with my life, its errors and cockeyed successes. . . . I would not die unfulfilled because I’d been here, right here and nowhere else.”

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