Happy Friday, dearies. This summer I’m wrapping up having gotten through 9 books and having put a hold on finishing a 10th. That’s almost as many books as I read in all of 2015. So woohoo for having a more bookish life. I wanted to really quickly rate each of these before moving on to my review of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You.
1. The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown - 5/5
2. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut – 3.5/5
3. The Martian, Andy Weir – 5/5
4. Paddle Your Own Canoe, Nick Offerman – 5/5
5. The Magician King, Lev Grossman – 4/5 (Trigger Warning)
6. Gumption, Nick Offerman – 4/5
7. The Road, Cormac McCarthy – 5/5
8. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert – 5/5
Title: This is Where I Leave You
Author: Jonathan Tropper
Year Published: 2009
“Dad’s dead.” – That’s the first line of the book. From there you follow the narrator, Judd Foxman, as he returns home to sit shiva with his mother and siblings. To say their lives and relationships with one another are complicated would be a giant understatement. Infidelity, lies, long held grudges, infertility, trauma galore – the Foxmans will make you every day wake up to be more thankful for your own family situation.
Why do I keep picking books with dead dads? I don’t know if I’m trying to process or if I’m somehow punishing my psyche – but damn. This is the mother of complicated and nuanced novels. Tropper writes with so much wry anger and bitterness it’s palpable. I’ve never experienced such raw emotion in a novel. When Judd is told within the first 15 pages that his estranged wife is pregnant he immediately responds, “Okay. Fuck you, Jen. Fuck you very much. I hope Wade’s kid has better luck in there than mine did. Can I go now?” – There’s nothing I could do but feel his anger as my own and remember my own personal experiences of my rage taking things a bit too far. It’s certainly a novel that I would recommend - but not with the assumption that it will make you feel any kind of warm and fuzzy inside.
It has to be said that Tropper is brilliantly gifted at writing about the male perspective. From the frequent mentions of sex or physical attributes to the struggles of processing emotional trauma – few are capable of being this transparent. Entire fabricated relationships about women walking past on the street or the bank teller. An eye for clear detail when it comes to describing sex, none of the fuzzy romanticizing of a woman’s rendition. Comments that are routinely made regarding the physical appearance of the elderly made me question Tropper’s personal sense of tact though. (I mean, really, what a woman in her 60’s chooses to wear is her own damned business. Back off.)
All of the characters form a maze of resentment, pain, and layered arguments that only big families can create. No one is particularly likeable, and many of them will remind you of familiar archetypes in literature, however they will keep you intrigued and they almost mock their own predictability at points. I didn’t like all of the story, but the writing is well crafted. Amidst sarcasm and healthy doses of irony, there are moments of wisdom tinged with the pain of hindsight. Listening to women talk about how having kids changes life and the marriage that created them, Judd ponders out loud, “Not having kids changes everything too.” Another character talking about loneliness, a theme throughout the novel, approached with honesty and grace, says, “I am seventy-two years old. I drink my coffee alone every morning, and I fall asleep with the TV on every night. There are headaches, and there are headaches.” I think Tropper’s biggest victory, though, is found in the delicate balance of honesty that he uses in portraying each character. He’s merciless with each of them, but is careful to leave strands of humanity left intact so that your faith isn’t completely wiped away.
Judd’s overall arc is that of a man grounded in adolescence and struggling to decide how to finally become a man. He’s made his career working in radio for a Howard Stern-like jockey, staying emotionally stunted like it’s a family trait to be proud of even whilst his marriage is crumbling to the ground. There’s the recurring instance of Judd dreaming about waking up as an amputee or in some cases the prosthesis is missing and he falls to the ground crippled. This metaphor is apt for his current feelings of ineptitude and brokenness and a scene where his dead father crafts him a new prosthesis which becomes a real leg was wonderful. If we assume that losing his leg is the metaphor for the coordinated loss of his father and marriage, Judd suddenly finds himself without an identity. His model for manhood is gone and he begins to examine his performance as a son, a brother, and a husband – ultimately realizing he was a failure. However, the great thing about self-awareness is that once you realize how you’ve botched things then you’re able to move forward and try not to make the same mistakes again. Love is two flawed people choosing and learning to be with one another in spite of those faults, each working to be the better version of themselves reflected in their lover’s eyes.
The novel as a whole beautifully follows Judd’s narrative through the stages of grief. It’s never once mentioned but Judd’s tone elegantly meanders through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. From the beginning when Judd stands impotently watching his wife cheating on him in their marital bed meanwhile following his own personal train of denial along for 7 pages, to his severe anger lashing out repeatedly at those around him (these scenes are just visceral), and on into the final pages as he progresses to finally accept new possibilities of who he’s going to be in his life. The grief of his father’s passing doesn’t subside within the timeline of the book, and readers shouldn’t expect it to. A year in, I don’t know that grieving over a parent’s death is ever finished. It ebbs and flows like coastal tides for the rest of your life. You’re never whole again, but you try to find a way to make that prosthesis become a new kind of real leg.