I read Cunningham’s second novel on the flight to America, having bought it on my previous trip. I loved The Hours and enjoyed Land’s End, and wanted to read more by him. This novel is mostly told from the perspective of two men, Bobby and Jonathan. That is to say, they start as boys. The opening lines, from Bobby’s perspective, are:
Once our father bought a convertible. Don’t ask me. I was five. He bought it and drove it home as casually as he’d bring a gallon of rocky road. Picture our mother’s surprise. She kept rubber band on the doorknobs. She washed old plastic bags and hung them on the line to dry, a string of thrifty tame jellyfish floating in the sun.
A couple of pages later, we shift to Jonathan’s perspective…
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.
So, Bobby is five and Jonathan is five. And, it turns out, A Home at the End of the World was first published on my 5th birthday, 7 November 1990, which is a fun coincidence. But, instead of 1990s Merseyside (where I spent that birthday), these boys are in Ohio in the 1960s.
Had I known the extent to which this novel incorporated the ‘coming-of-age’ genre, I might have fun a mile; it’s not a subset of literature that I often enjoy. In describing this novel, I can’t really deny that it is firmly in that genre. And yet it’s done rather better than I could have hoped for; events and emotions follow on from events and emotions, and Cunningham entirely captivates the reader while they’re relayed. Usually I just roll my eyes or wait for some horizon where they become adults and the prose can start describing a destination rather than a journey. Here, the journey of growing up was made to feel an apt focus.
There are some significant events – including deaths – that affect the lives of both boys. One of the most powerful comes early in the book, when the older brother Bobby idolises dies in a freak accident, running full pelt through glass doors. Their relationship was mostly founded on taking drugs together, so he was hardly a stablising influence on Bobby’s life but Cunningham conveys the closeness of brothers extremely well – and the ways in which Bobby responds to it.
Throughout the novel, he is shown as sensitive, attuned to others, and with a deep-set need to belong. Jonathan, on the other hand, values independence – struggling to accept the overtures of his friendship his mother offers. As Bobby and Jonathan grow older, their close friendship turns into a sexual relationship, albeit one that neither of them want to directly discuss even between themselves. The alternating first person narratives give the reader a chance to see how both characters feel and think about their experiences, while at the same time witnessing their diffidence. Cunningham handles the tension between first-person insight and objective events really beautifully.
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.
In a coming-of-age novel, this might be where events would have ended – but, for Cunningham, it is simply the beginning. One chapter of their lives end, and another begins – indeed, takes most of the novel – as Jonathan moves to New York. Bobby remains behind, even moving in with Jonathan’s parents; the men lose touch, until Bobby decides to move to New York too.
Another thing Cunningham portrays brilliantly is the way that friendships peter out. In fiction, once characters bond they often seem ineluctably close forever after. Far more realistic is the awkwardness between Bobby and Jonathan – an affectionate awkwardness, but where all the affection is based on memories. Still, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his housemate Clare. The three of them form a delicate trio. I shan’t write any more about what happens, but suffice to say that plenty more happens – all of which (as throughout the novel) is played well for plausible emotional impact and character rather than simply the shock of plot.
Easily the greatest achievement here is Cunningham’s writing. I jotted down, in my pencil note at the beginning, that the writing was ‘seductive’ – by which I meant that it seduces the reader into the world of the novel. And that, I think, is by gradually building up composite portraits of its characters (particularly, of course, Jonathan and Bobby) through a sort of restrained intimacy. The first-person narratives feel like they’re telling us everything, but they are not confessional voices: they reveal parts of the people, and keep enough back to reel us in.
Although this novel is not flawless (I think death and dying is used a little too often to maintain its impact, for instance), it’s difficult to fault the creation of character, the exploration of perspective, or the realism of behaviours. He really is an exceptional writer. (And which others do you think I should read?)