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I’m ashamed to admit it was the cover that intrigued me. I enjoyed the simplicity of it, the minimalist feel. The butterfly was in a jar. The book read The End of Alice. I judged a book by its cover and, in this instance, it payed off.
The End of Alice plays around with the unreliable narrator. Told by Chappy, an ageing paedophile-child murderer, serving life in prison, we get three stories – that of Chappy as a child and how he grew to meet Alice, his current life whilst imprisoned and the summer of his pen-pal, a nineteen year old girl who wishes to seduce her twelve year old neighbour, Matt. But Chappy tells us everything. It is his voice, his story to tell. Remember: we are not to trust him.
Chappy doesn’t allow us to hear everything from the girl’s letters. He is insulted at one point by her use of language (‘here is the false poetry of the overly undereducated, and you wonder why I haven’t quoted her more’) and confused by her use of modern language, asking us for help.
I first read Homes’ novel when I was sixteen, perplexed by the ‘flowery’ yet sharp language, emotionally unable to understand and articulate Homes’ message. I finished the book, skim-reading and enjoyed what I had read. Other scenes stuck out more than others. I told my friends at University to read it, years later, and couldn’t hold a decent conversation about it. There were blank spaces in my skim-reading, a lack of understanding. It’s taken me two years to finally sit down and re-read the whole book. It’s odd, the idea of re-reading. I usually feel like I’m wasting time, going over the same lines unless there is a need for it and although the re-reading of The End of Alice was for the sake of this column it became something of its own. A re-reading of the dark paves of Chappy’s mind, his small, quick confessions etched into the middle of his sentences.
Among the duo symmetry of the two paedophiles I found myself naturally – or maybe unnaturally – more intrigued by Chappy. His story is the stuff of intrigue, ruined ideals, violence and curiosity. Emotion got him caught. He can comprehend the idea of love, he can understand us as a reader, an audience and there is his – and, by extension Homes’ – power. When I finished re-reading – ambushed with the many thoughts: the use of the blood, intimacy in sex, age, power, etc – I compared it to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Two novels told from the perspective of vicious men, one a Wall Street psychopath, rapist and murderer, the other a convicted child killer and necrophiliac. What joins them in the same group – besides the ‘banned books’ theme – is that of two voices that truly make its audience uncomfortable.
From Ellis’ Patrick Bateman who rapes and murders two women, inserting a mouse into one of the women’s vaginas to Homes’ Chappy raping a young girl’s unconscious body there is a line between the need to shock and the desire to shock. When Bateman’s narration becomes obscene it is Ellis I feel who wants to shock us as an audience, rattle our cages. When Chappy discusses rape and underage sex it is Chappy holding this voice. Although Homes does edge in, defending, almost, this idea herself (‘some might believe that I blither just to shock, but what is shock if not some ancient identification, meaning that I have touched a sore spot, hit a nerve – think on it, will you’) this is Chappy’s story and he is going to tell it. There is little blur between Homes as a writer and Chappy as a narrator when, in the case of American Psycho, Bateman is Ellis, manifested to a higher, violent proportion than he will ever act upon in life but constantly think and scribble down, to shock.
“Homes will do for baths what Hitchcock did for showers.”
The Tomato Queen is home. Chappy’s mother, home from the asylum, ready to take him to the bathhouse, out for the day. The Tomato Queen, an alcoholic, her mind a box of screws. The Tomato Queen and the bath scene. The bath scene told in parallel to Chappy having a rectal exam.. “It’s your home,” the Tomato Queen says.
When I first read the scene I was so repulsed, so taken aback, that I laughed and I have to admit that upon re-reading it had the same affect. The scene is uncomfortable that I’m sure, when most people pass it on to friends – if they ever do – they will mention the bath scene. I will give a brief overview of what happens to clarify: once in the bath, Chappy’s mother makes him fist her, he feels he is killing her, he is ‘boxing Mama’. When it is all over and Chappy believes he has killed her due to her orgasm, he is aroused – a foreshadowing to his later victims – and his mother is dismissive, (‘…She laughs and pushes me away. “Now you’re just all excited. All riled up.” She laughs as though it’s too funny.’) It’s all over, she dresses, he swims and the confusion continues.
They next have a night in a hotel room in which Chappy expects something to happen again, almost excited by it but there is nothing, ‘she is mother again’ as he tells us. Then she’s dead. Drove her car off a bridge and Chappy believes he has killed her even in his old age, he believes he is responsible for her death. The blame, the guilt inflicted by the time in the bath is a trigger, of course, and whether we consider it is a dream/over-exaggeration or not is another debate, but the time in the bath does contribute to Chappy as a person whether that be before or after he had already started considering violent thoughts.
Although the scene is graphic, it has to be there, it has to be this obscene because it is Chappy and there is part of me that wonders just how much is true and how much is Chappy romanticising the situation in his former years. The Tomato Queen is a looming, ghost-like figure, inflicting seemingly child-like cruelty. But it is never discussed. The book is not about blame and maybe that’s why the bath scene is that bit more horrifying.
When America Fell Asleep, She Had A Nightmare
‘Do all little girls have to die?
The American Dream turned into The American Nightmare overnight. Nobody noticed but Chappy. The American Dream, our ideal of suburbia: housewives and picket-fences. Then came the generation of writers who took apart the idea of that dream, its falseness unveiled by Yates, Cheever, Carver, Wolfe, etc. And now Homes. Homes, whose Music for Torching and May We Be Forgiven are set in the Connecticut suburbs – the same as Yates’ Revolutionary Road, seen as the grandfather of the suburban fiction sub-genre. Whilst The End of Alice is mainly based in the prison, we are reading Chappy’s views and memories of his life during Alice, a somewhat fairy tale setting of cabins and woods and sunsets. True, also? Maybe not.
‘The untamed environs, the suburban subdivisions, the hazards of the garbage disposal, trash compactor, and radar range are much more violent, more dangerous, than what you imagine happens in these hallowed halls. Your capitol dome and bureaucratic bulges, gubernatorial pitches for reform, coupled with the grisly grit of who was killed, who was maimed, and what twelve-year-old child was mowed down on his way home from school, stun and stone me.’
The girl writes Chappy a letter and she tells him she’s confused, there’s no sign that tells him apart from anyone else, he looks like everyone else. ‘These people’, the paedophiles, the murderers, the rapists, the sexually depraved, are among us because we are among them. Chappy sees it, remember? That’s what he thinks, we’re the people who don’t own our sexuality, our sick desires, he does. We live among Chappy, he lives among us. He is the man working in the shoe store, enjoying small pleasures, going home with a girl when her parents are away, watching her undress and then using her unconscious body when her excitement results in her knocking her head and passing out:
‘I fuck her every which way, pulling out just in time to leave my squirt, my hot sealing wax splashed over her lips, gracing her face. When she wakes, she will think it is a heavy drool; she has slobbered or seized in her artificial sleep. A warm rag doll. A living, loving thing, laid back in complete compliance. I dance around the room, paint my face with her lipstick, and leave strange kisses on her cheeks, which I then rub in, giving her a false blush. I fuck her again, can’t help myself. It is the first time I’ve stolen sex, taken something without asking.’
The horror. The horror of it. Different from the bath. This sort of description would be the same as the bath scene if we were to hear it from the Tomato Queen’s perspective but now we are in Chappy’s, he is telling us what he’s doing, how he’s enjoying, not a care in the world. He hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s just doing what he’s set to do, is his view. The horror of this scene, however, is made more horrifying upon re-reading when I realised how important this event is. Not only because it’s what makes Chappy pack up and leave to rent a cabin near Alice but because of the kisses. He kisses the unconscious girl and it is an illusion to Alice: (‘Accused dipped his lips in victim’s blood and then kissed deceased repeatedly’). There is love to Alice, love to this girl, the kisses are the signal for that. But, we are then confronted with the question of – was Chappy’s murder of Alice (however grotesque) that of someone in love or, due to the kisses on both victims, is it the work of something much more serial by someone who is motivated to do the same again, only worse?
‘Among the beetles and bees, lie together on the cricket floor’
This is not a book about paedophilia but a book about sexuality. Everything is complicated, nothing is simple and Homes has offered us perverse, sadistic, submissive, intimate, tender, explicit, corrupt moments of sexuality. We see Chappy with multiple partners or victims, his most recent, Clayton, his cell mate, who introduces Chappy to something new – rimming. It’s never happened to Chappy before, he likes girls but he allows Clayton to have his way, sometimes it’s just easier, according to Chappy. Although clearly enjoying the rimming, Chappy decides he will kill Clayton before it happens again. He doesn’t kill him, instead he rapes Clayton in front of the other prisoners, singing as he does. Chappy has no remorse, of course. The book, although full of sex and rape, blurring those ideas together somewhat, is not about sex but rather our sexualities.
Chappy is lying naked next to the lake when he first meets Alice. She runs up to him, demands he play with her and ties him naked to a tree. She leaves him there for several hours. Alice is twelve and the act itself shows a relation between childishness and power. Chappy enjoys it. He is entranced by her. She is like no other. One of my personal favourite Alice quotes:
“‘We’ll run away,’
‘Anywhere you want to go.’
‘To hell in a handcart,’ she says.”
Chappy doesn’t rape Alice, he has sex with a twelve-year-old girl. But things go wrong. Their love affair – however naive and enflamed – is doomed, pushed forward by Alice’s step into womanhood. She has her first period and doesn’t understand, she thinks Chappy has killed her. She bleeds like his mother did and blames him for killing her like he blames himself for his mother. The novel comes, fantastically, full circle, the true end of Alice – the end of us – end of our intrigue, lost within it, “Curiouser and curiouser”. Chappy kills Alice, the true horror explained not in Chappy’s voice, perhaps it is too hard to bare, perhaps because he does feel a level of guilt or because he’s just too exhausted from telling us so much as he is ‘old, so old’. He was still old when he met Alice, in his thirties, already accomplished in his field of paedophilia and that’s what makes Alice so different – their love was never an attack until the end. It boiled on violence, the violence of Chappy, the violence of her. Alice wants him to hurt her and it is against his nature, but he does.
This is a book about our sexual desires, what we think about in bed rather than what we actually do in the sheets. The novel recounts tales of perverse and wonder, paving that line. The line between beauty and filth, our minds and everyday life. One quote, plucked from Chappy’s memoir, rings the middle of the line – ‘the romantic rhymes of curious widows’ – where, with Chappy saying this we have to wonder what it really means. Because he treads across that line throughout the book, constantly dragging us between close and far, toying us, teasing us, illuminating, lying, joking, playing around, because he can.
Thomas Stewart is a Columnist for Litro NY and has had his fiction, poetry and essays published at The Stockholm Review, The Cadaverine, Storgy, Vada Magazine, Anomaly, Agenda Broadsheet, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming from Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from the University of Warwick and a BA in English from the University of South Wales. He enjoys folk music, horror films, suburban fiction, watches, cooking, patterned jumpers and beat poetry. He is afraid of the dark.