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[456] The Book of Joe – Jonathan Tropper

” Time doesn’t heal as much as it buries things in the undergrowth of your brain, where they lie in wait to ambush you when you least expect is . . . Loneliness doesn’t exist on any single plane of consciousness. It’s generally a low throb, barely audible, like the hum of a Mercedes engine in a park, but every so often the demands of the highway call for a burst of acceleration . . . ” (Ch. 4, p.28-29)

Self-deprecatingly funny about provocatively insightful, The Book of Joe is the story of a writer who was once an alienated youth but achieves literary success with a novel that salvages his hometown and its people. Using real people as props, Joe Goffman subjects those who rubbed him the wrong way to exaggerated proportions in his book. He cares less about the town’s furious reception and defensive denials from all involved in the events described because he never thought about going back to Bush Fallas after he graduated from high school. But after a 17-year absence, his father’s medical condition obliges him to return and cope with a past he tried so hard to bury.

Your penchant for self-analysis—which is, by the way, another manifestation of your egotism—is further complicated by immense feelings of inferiority. You don’t allow yourself to become fully engaged because deep down you feel undeserving of approval, love, success, et cetera. All of the things you crave. (Ch. 6, p.44)

Doubtless the controversial author’s return is not a big hit with the locals, who view the book as nothing short of libel, written with deliberate malice and the intent to sully reputations. Within twenty four hours of his arrival to his neck of the wood, where everyone antagonizes him (the book club dumps a box full of his books, spines cracked, in his lawn), Joe has been reunited, however awkwardly, with his estranged family and old flame, has walked in on a sexual liaison, got in trouble with the law, been assaulted on two separate occasions, and met up with an ailing friend whose life is on its final straw.

It’s a lyrical mystery I have in mind, about a son who returns home to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding his estranged father’s death, excavating clues and his own troubled past as he goes. (Ch. 25, p.218)

The Book of Joe, beneath its burst of humor and sharp one-liners, carries an emotional heft. The return home presents Joe a second chance to grow up—to grow out of his immaturity, to cope with the hurt feelings, and to take responsibility for the people he left behind. Tropper does a beautiful job interweaving all the issues revolving around family, relationships, friendship and missed opportunity into a book that flows seamlessly. Joe’s narrative and his book of events in 1986 alternate to tell the story. Confronted with the family, whose love he so desperately yearns for, Joe can no longer contain his deep feelings of guilt, loneliness and loss. He feels an ambivalence over his own feelings, a sense of disorientation over the years, especially toward his father, to whom he never felt close—because his father never knew how to relate to a guy who is not an athlete.

I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t help bitterly observing that even in death my father has managed to remind me one last time of my exclusion from the privileged inner circle he and Brad inhabit as Cougars. (Ch. 23, p.196)

The Book of Joe concerns with one’s reconciliation with his past–namely, dealing with his “ghost.” What was left unresolved over 17 years finally comes around in full circle, facilitated by, sadly, the deaths of two people that have contributed to the memories of his formative years. What transpires from his interactions with his dying friend, whom he sought to protect back in the days when nobody was prepared to deal with one’s homosexuality, as well as the basketball coach whom he singled out for a negative portrayal finally makes Joe a complete man. This is a beautiful book, full of heart and wisdom. It encompasses life in America in general, beholding an allure and hypocrisy of our society.

338 pp. Delta Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]



“Man, does anybody like you?”

After some heavy book, I picked up Jonathan Tropper’s The Book of Joe for a good laugh. That said, I am surprised that it’s a book with enormous heart, humility, and wit, despite all the humor. This is the type of book that which I always want to read passages out loud. If I’m on vacation, sitting by the pool with this book, I would have finished it in one sitting.

Nineteen eighty-six was a fine time to be a teenager in love. Unemployment was down, the stock market was up, and people were generally optimistic. We listened to happy European synth pop: Depeche Mode, Erasure, A-Ha. The boys tucked the bottoms of their stonewashed Gap jeans into their high-top Nikes, gelled and cut wedges into their hair, and tried in vain to incorporate the moonwalk into their limited dance repertoires. The girls teased their hair high with mousse, wore iridescent skirts with matching eye shadow, fishnet shirts off one shoulder, and anything they saw in Madonna’s videos. Things were so peaceful, they had to send Rambo back to Vietnam to look for action. We had no Internet or grunge bands to dilute our innocence with irony, no glorified slackers or independent films to make darkness appealing. Happiness was still considered socially acceptable. (Chapter 12)

The book is about Joe Goffman, noveau rich author, whose bestseller novel has salvaged his entire hometown with exaggerated proportions, returns to visit his father in sickbed. Within hours of his arrival, his return ignites a maelstrom of reactions from those whom he had trashed in the book. He got in trouble with the law, been assaulted on two separate occasions, and and met up with an ailing friend, who wields his outsider status as a weapon to insulate himself.

A few blocks before we get to Wayne’s house, I hear a change in his breathing and turn to find him staring out the window, weeping quietly. I look back at the road, feeling like an intruder. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but all that emerges is a series of sharp, anguished sobs that rack his frail frame, and he makes no effort to wipe away the shockingly robust tears that run in slow motion down his face. (Chapter 14)

This is a page-turner, but I don’t want it to end. Despite all the laughter, it’s the first book in several years that had me in tears.

[431] This is Where I Leave you – Jonathan Tropper

” None of us makes eye contact. We have pretty much had it with each other. We are injured and angry, scared and sad. Some families, like some couples, become toxic to each other after prolonged exposure. ” (44, 298)

Morton Foxman died, leaving behind a 63-year-old widow (Looking Jane Fonda-ish), who is a shrink and expert on parenting and four grown-up children (who Judd the narrator thinks are screwed beyond repair). Hillary Foxman decides to take advantage of her husband’s death to hold a weeklong shiva, which marks the first time that the entire clan meets. As the family comes together reluctantly, with spouses, kids, and girlfriend in tow, one conspicuous absence is noted with sourness and curiosity: Judd’s wife, Jen, who left him for a popular misogynist blowhard radio personality that happens to be Judd’s boss, Wade Bolanger.

Death is exhausting. Whether it’s from the trauma of burying my father or from spending the entire day in close proximity to my family, I barely have the energy to take my pants off being collapsing on the mostly opened sofa bed, my legs tilted upward… (9, 78)

The story unfolds with breakneck pace through the eyes of Judd Foxman, who is grappling with the loss of his father and the collapse of his marriage. (It ended with paramedics and cheesecake.) Between the comings and goings of mourners, banterings, quipping, and fighting, long-standing grudges resurface and secrets are revealed. Despite the permeating humor, hysteria, and wisecracks, one sees how the Foxman siblings always struggle trying to confront an honest emotion, but fail consistently, because the hardwiring just runs too deep.

Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to see your siblings as the people they have become. Maybe that’s why we all stay away from each other as a matter of course. (48, 321)

The domestic, under-one-roof setting is a perfect device to draw on the eccentric cast of characters that make up the dysfunctional family and force them to cope with their suppressed feelings. Paul tries to keep afloat the sport good business his father left behind, while his wife squanders a fortune on her quest to fertility. Wendy has a full plate with two boys who never take more than two minutes to destroy a room, while her work-driven husband is completely oblivious to family matter. Philip, the yougest, is the one who walks in to the party like he’s walking onto a yacht—so vain and yet deceiving. His latest love is a cougar.

We are thinking about our kids, our lack of kids, about finances and fiancées and soon-to-be ex-wives, about the sex we’re not having, the sex our soon-to-be ex-wives are having, about loneliness and love and death and Dad, and this constant crowd is like the fog on a dark road; you just keep driving and watch it dissipate in your low beams. (15, 106)

This is Where I Leave You is wickedly and riotously funny, barely leaving me room to breathe. Beneath all the humor is emotion so raw despite being repressed for so long. Whether these siblings like it or not, the blood relation binds them all through thick and thin. As the week of mourning the patriarch moves toward reconciliation, appreciation, and rapprochement, there awakened in each one of the Foxmans a nostalgic sense of childhood, which seemed permanent then. As they shoveled the dirt onto their father’s coffin, it dawns on them the impermanence of everything. Tropper’s strong suit is wisecracks, the more irreverent the better. And that he gives snarky allure to the narrator’s observations keeps me engrossed.

339 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]