Friday, November 18, 2011

This is Where I Leave you by Jonathan Tropper

I've never liked the genre appellation of 'women's fiction.'  The umbrella term is too big, and offers too many points of contention no matter how well it may work as a marketing phrase.  Previously, 'women's fiction' primarily bothered me because it somehow inferred that there were elements of human existence outside of biological imperative that were unique to the female sex, like relationship difficulties; family problems; sexual assault; how one's life changes upon having children.  (I admit the possibly of still being wrong in this regard.)  I haven't read much of what is labeled women's fiction and have previously refused to give it any credence until I come across something called, 'Men's fiction.'  I'm not going to present it this way, but if someone wanted to, it would be easy to make the argument that This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper is decidedly 'Men's Fiction.'        
Judd Foxman is in his early thirties, no longer as physically fit as he used to be, and recently unemployed by way of his wife sleeping with his boss.  When his father dies and his family has to sit shiva, spend seven days and nights together to honor their father's memory, he is made to examine every aspect of his life by way of spending time with his family and seeing things in a different perspective.  
This first thing that came to mind when I finished this book was The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  Both novels are hilarious.  Both are about a seemingly dysfunctional family (both novels are perhaps about the average American family and that is their strength in that readers can identify, no matter how bizarre, on some level.)  Tropper's novel is more intimate focusing solely on Judd where Franzen encompasses the entire family.  While Judd is not 'everyman', he is a close enough approximation that 'every reader' can embrace, reject or commiserate with him at some point.  
We see how Judd handles his age and deals with his insecurity concerning how he sees himself and how he thinks others see him in his interaction with his youngest brother Philip who is a good looking, charming, womanizer and life long prodigal.  The weight and effects of Judd's guilt and his ability to avoid uncomfortable--no matter how important--events are made clear as he is made to spend time with Paul his older brother whose future, post high school, was irreparably changed in an incident where Judd was a crucial figure.  Perhaps most poignant was Judd's observance of Horry, a neighbor and childhood friend who now requires assisted living due to a traumatizing childhood.  Judd sees how Horry is living with brain damage, how he manages to keep going and slowly but surely takes hints that time isn't going to stop for him.  No matter how absurd his life is.  
The women in Judd's life: his wife, his brother's wife, the girl from high school he bumps into while in town, and every other woman that he lays eyes on, show Judd's desperation for a loving relationship with anyone who truly cares about him.  As he says many times, Judd loves the idea of being in love; particularly so when he has massive relationship problems to work through which are probably best left uncomplicated by new physical relationships.    
Time marching on is one of the book's themes that all characters struggle with.  Judd can't see past the current nightmare of his life, Horry's feelings of everyday being the same as the last, Philip's inability to grow up and stop making the same mistakes, Paul's hurt and anger that has kept much of his mind and emotion in the past contrast with the one character who has already moved on from the tragedy of her husband dying and started a new chapter of her life: their mother, who somewhat presides over and originally demanded that they all sit shiva.  And while she may have had a bit of a head start, or anticipation, in getting over the death of her husband it is through her that the family comes to see that at the end of seven days even though their father has past, life will continue.  
It sounds like a highly dramatic, somber and bleak book with weighty themes and not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.  It is dramatic, but what separates This is Where I Leave You from anything anyone else that could have written is Tropper's humor.  This is the funniest book I've ever read.  No matter how dark or irresolute the situation everything, is humorous; mainly by way of men behaving badly.  There are no punch-lines, or situational comedic setups.  There is nothing so preconceived as building a scene for the sole purpose of telling an appropriate joke.  Everything is organic, very contemporary, most of it will leave you slightly embarrassed or wondering if in the same situation would you have been able to say the same thing.  
In addition to being hilarious Tropper has a great way of stopping time in his writing and going over multiple conflicting thoughts or feelings in an instant within various characters without being tedious.   
This is a book about men: how the talk, how they feel, how they think; it's as funny as it is honest.  Dare I say some women may not like it, others maybe surprised. 

 "There is no talking to her.  And now the tears come, just like that.  Where have all the happy, well-adjusted women gone?  Every one I talk to these days is one wrong word away from a crying fit. (...)  "Thanks for understanding, Judd," she says, and she must be joking, because, Alice, honey, I would travel to the ends of the earth, kill or die, just to find one single thing that I could understand."  Page 297 

Tropper sure is tough on his narrator as things start out bad and only continue to get worse.  There never is an impending feeling of 'happily ever after' rather something more like, 'everything will work itself out.'  Amidst all the humor ( every page--every single page--had me laughing about something ), drama ( of which most is understated to keep the narrative focused on the outcome and not the exposition of how the drama came to be ), broken; mended; and open-ended relationships, Tropper succeeds in a blunt, concise portrayal of family finding a way to deal with each other in the most adverse of circumstances.   


kimbofo said...

I actually like the sound of this, Chad. I tend to have 'male tastes', probably because I grew up reading books from my dad's library.

Chad Hull said...

Thanks Kim!

I don't comment on all the books I read but I wanted to talk about his one simply because, at least in my reading, realistic, contemporary portrayals of men seem to be kinda scarce. That, and Tropper has a bit of a stereotypical modern day male, chip-on-the-shoulder approach that I found disturbing honest and powerful (as well as funny as hell).