a Boy, Sitting Shiva
Is Where I Leave You
Dutton, 352 Pages, $25.95
Jonathan Tropper’s novels are often compared to those of Nick
Hornby. Tropper’s protagonists, invariably male, typically
suffer a hilarious series of emotional and physical torments
en route to a resolution in which sheer peace is a desirable
component. But this only proves a lack of contemporary comic-novel
referents. Hornby’s work tends to be arch and, in the case
of characterizations, overly facile; Tropper’s tropes are
drawn from the unique social phenomenon known as the suburbs,
in particular those north of Manhattan.
This places Tropper’s five hilarious novels more in alignment
with those of Peter De Vries, whose novels from the ’60s and
’70s chronicled the ironies and discomforts of the Fairfield
County set. And, like De Vries, Tropper revels in the well-crafted
Tropper’s novels are always funny, but he’s lately developed
a more easygoing lilt to his dialogue and descriptions, as
in the following portion of a six-page interior monologue
that Judd Foxman sounds when beholding his wife, Jen, in bed
with his boss:
. . . when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty,
often grotesque business to behold: the hairs, the abraded,
dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening
organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive
and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals
clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping,
and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes
along and devours us.
dilemma of the suburbs is the price demanded for the assumed
luxury. It’s not just your house and attendant taxes. It’s
the cost of trying to belong to a society less welcoming than
it seems, imposing unspoken expectations of conformity.
Adding to Foxman’s marital woe is his father’s sudden death,
and the framework of the novel becomes his mother’s demand
that the children—Judd has a brother and sister—sit shiva.
What ensues are seven days in which the family’s relationships
with one another, including spouses and kids, unravel against
a context of visiting mourners and past memories:
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 off my pants
before collapsing on the mostly opened sofa bed, my legs tilted
upward toward the Ping-Pong table. There, beneath the house,
in the oblong shadow cast by the single naked lightbulb, I
can feel the panic rising, the sense that I’m disappearing.
A few miles away, my father is buried in a grassy bluff overlooking
the tangle of blacktop where the interstate and thruway intersect.
We are both underground, gone from the world. At least his
legs are fully extended.
As those old memories are reawakened, so too is long-dormant
desire. Penny, for example, whom Judd hasn’t seen in eight
years, and who seems riper now than in her prom-queen days.
Judd’s halting pursuit of her is countered by the revelations
that emerge as his marriage continues to unravel.
But the story is an ensemble piece, with all of the lead characters
drawn distinctively. They’re believable enough to make credible
the amusing skirmishes that ensue, character-driven problems
that will resonate with anyone who’s dealt with a ne’er-do-well
brother. In this case, it’s the peripatetic Phillip, who arrives
in a Porsche with a rich almost-fiancée and reignites his
contentious relationship with brother Paul. All of this ensues
under the enlightened eye of their mother, “a sixty-three-year-old
best-selling author with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and
Pamela Anderson’s breasts, who talks about fucking her late
husband like she’s discussing current events.”
Tropper’s greatest strength in this novel is his ability to
spin out incredible (and hilarious) consequences to actions
performed in jealousy and anger even while keeping us aware
that there’s an undercurrent of love in this family. While
Judd’s relationship with brother Paul is given a too-pat resolution,
the situations with Penny and Jen are messier and are left
in more plausible places.
At the same time, the book is a great cartoon, with outsized
fistfights, old-movie romantic scenes, and even a new twist
on the old pie-in-the-face. The laughs are well paced and
easily carry through to a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.
Soon enough, I’m sure we’ll have Tropper-esque as lit-style