Sunday, July 19, 2009

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

It's very difficult to read contemporary novels without bringing along masses of personal baggage and history; I know I tend to enjoy and seek out books about people much like myself...even while I make snarky comments when other people do the same thing. So the fact that I greatly enjoyed reading Jonathan Tropper's new novel This Is Where I Leave You may be very much because it's about a man near my age, in my part of the world, who is even more confused and troubled than I am.

Judd Foxman is a Westchester radio producer in his early thirties, and had thought that he was successful, with a good life. But then, a few weeks before the novel opened, he walked in on his gorgeous wife, Jen, having sex with his boss, a roadshow Limbaugh named Wade Boulanger. Somehow -- Tropper never narrates the specifics -- this led to Judd moving out of his house and into a crummy basement apartment, and Jen (whose job, if any, Tropper never mentions) keeping the house. Judd also found himself out of a job, though he wasn't exactly fired and didn't precisely quit. (Though he does get a sitcom-worthy storming-out-of-the-office scene.)

That's backstory; on the first page of This Is Where I Leave You, Judd learns that his father has died. And the old man's last wish was that his widow Hillary and four children -- Judd, married-to-a-self-absorbed-venture-capitalist Wendy, damaged ex-jock Paul, and ne'er-do-well baby brother Philip -- would sit shiva for him, though none of them have been more than nominally Jewish for decades, if ever. But it's hard to deny a dying wish, so the whole family descends on the typically spacious ancestral home, which is even, far too symbolically, at the end of a cul-de-sac.

And then there are the second rank of supporting characters, who deserve to be bullet-pointed:
  • Penny, an old girlfriend of Judd's who is, amazingly, completely unattached
  • their rabbi, and Judd's old school friend, Charles "Boner" Grodner
  • mother Hillary's bestselling parenting book Cradle and All, which comes up several times but remains a free-floating metaphor or explanation
  • next-door neighbor Linda Callen, who has a very special connection to mother Hillary
  • Linda's seizure-damaged son Horry, whose injury neither quite resonates with Paul's similar story nor comes into its own; it's just another damned thing
  • Wendy's one-dimensional husband Barry, and their three kids, who are underfoot but uncharacterized
  • Paul's wife Alice, who desperately wants children and hasn't gotten any after years of trying -- and she was also Judd's first girlfriend
  • and Tracy, Philip's fifteen-years-older therapist and girlfriend
All this, and the subsequent events involving all of those characters, read very smoothly -- Judd's voice is crisp and clear, with a justified undertone of self-loathing and despair but an essential openness and honesty -- but it's a novel that starts to seem more contrived the more time and energy one puts into thinking about it. A more cynical reader might even consider it written primarily as Hollywood bait; it has a slew of quirky parts, and could easily be pitched as a Djareeling Express-meets-Rachel Getting Married-style indy comedy-drama.

All of those many parts are juicy enough to attract the usual actorly types, and all of the women are gorgeous to an unlikely degree. (The men are not described in terms of their physical beauty quite as much, but the reader gets the impression that they are all rugged, sturdy types and each has an emotional arc that, if played right, would bring the Academy to tears.)

The problem with This Is Where I Leave You is that it's too full of characters, and that they all are too much "characters" for a relatively serious novel and not funny enough for a farce. Judd's story is compelling -- at least to men in their middle years, who suddenly poke their heads up, look around, and wonder how the hell they ever got here and if it really was anything they wanted -- but it becomes only one story in a broth of them, and, in the end, the novel is happy to revel in the trivial and the standard rather than blazing its own trail.

This Is Where I Leave You is quite entertaining, in a sub-Tom Perotta way, but it doesn't earn any of the deep emotions it wants to evoke. Judd goes through his week of shiva, and the readers meet all of the members of his crazy family -- but he doesn't really learn anything important, about them or himself, and that family is not nearly as crazy as Judd seems to think. Every family is crazy. It's what you do with the craziness that matters, and, at the end of This Is Where I Leave You, Judd still doesn't know what he can, or should, or will do with that craziness. But that's where Tropper leaves us: happy, entertained, but essentially unsatisfied.

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