Where to begin in my review of this disaster of a novel? With the nonstop implausible sex and violence? With the children who speak and act like sitcom children rather than the real thing? With the hackneyed displays of emotion? With the clunky transitions in and out of flashbacks? With the prose that sometimes descends into the sorts of sentences that 10th graders are asked to fix in grammar workbooks? Choices abound.
I suppose I’ll start with the fact that the premise of this novel is really quite good. The protagonist and first-person narrator is Judd Foxman, who has recently separated from his wife after she slept with his boss. Judd receives a call from his sister informing him that their father has died and that his final request was that the family – a secular brood if ever there was one – sit shiva for him. Judd and his three siblings gather in their family home with their mother, Hillary, a neighbor named Linda, and Linda’s son Horry, who dated Judd’s sister Wendy back in high school, before he was beaten badly in a fight and developed a permanent neurological condition that makes him dependent on his mother.
The death-themed comedy has a long history, of course. When my mom died and I was given her ashes to drive home (did you know that you have to have a special license to drive your mother’s ashes in your car? True story, but a digression nonetheless), I was absolutely convinced that sooner or later someone was going to spill the ashes, or lose the ashes, or get the ashes mixed up with someone else’s. When I asked myself why I was so fixated on these possible mixups, my answer was something like because that’s what ALWAYS happens. A little bit more contemplation alerted me to the fact that I thought ashes ALWAYS get lost, stolen, or spilled because that’s what always happens on TV and in the movies. The example that comes most immediately to mind is an episode of Married…With Children in which Al Bundy loses someone’s ashes and then has to sneak around in the neighbors’ yards stealing ashes from their barbeques until he has enough to fill the urn back up. I know that there were other examples too – so many that my mind had trained me to think of an urn full of ashes as little more than a comic prop (and it doesn’t help that they’re sometimes called “cremains”). And what is comedy, after all, except the living thumbing their noses at the dead? Comedies in all eras have mocked the mortality of the body, with its flatulence and incontinence and weird sexual fetishes, its need to piss and shit, while also celebrating that mortality as something to be cherished specifically because it is temporary. This novel fits right into this tradition, and while I am not ready to place it side by side with Lysistrata and Twelfth Night and Gulliver’s Travels, I have no doubt that Tropper was working from models such as these.
Even if my copy of this novel didn’t say SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE on the cover, I would have known that this book was written with Hollywood in mind. My guess that the film will fit nicely into the subgenre defined by the Meet the Fockers movies – right down to the fact that Ben Stiller would make a perfect Judd. I enjoy the occasional slapstick comedy/potty humor/dysfunctional family movie as much as the next person, but I’ve never been drawn to them on the page. I’ve read a couple of Tom Perrotta’s novels and enjoyed them more than I enjoyed This is Where I Leave You, but even Perrotta works better on the big screen, I think.
Judd’s family consists of Wendy, her stockbroker husband Barry (stockbroker husbands are always named “Barry”) and three children; Paul and his wife Alice; and Phillip, Judd’s youngest brother, who is not married but who brings his girlfriend Tracy – twenty years his senior) – to sit shiva with him, prompting any number of sly remarks to the effect that Phillip is sleeping with his mother. Judd’s mother is Hillary, a psychology Ph.D and bestselling author of books on raising children, is a lot like Blanche Deveraux from The Golden Girls, except that she is a secret lesbian.
In the weeks before the novel begins, Judd caught his wife Jen in bed with his boss, Wade (all highly-sexed wife-stealing bosses are named “Wade”). At the time Judd was carrying a cheesecake containing several lighted candles – a birthday surprise for Jen – which he then tries to shove up Wade’s ass, only to find that Wade has been using a flammable lubricant of some kind, and the candles ignite the lubricant and burn Wade’s testicles badly. Then it turns out that Jen is pregnant – initially she thinks the baby is Wade’s, but when she learns that Wade is sterile, she returns to Judd and tells him that the baby is his. Judd and Jen have tried to have babies already and went through one stillbirth, so the prospect of bringing another pregnancy to term so soon after Jen’s affair understandably inspires some complicated feelings in Judd.
On the morning of the family’s first day of shiva, their local rabbi – a former classmate of Paul’s whose childhood nickname was “Boner” – arrives to cover their mirrors, set up five shiva chairs for the five members of the nuclear family, and instruct them on how their week of mourning should proceed. Obviously the fact that the rabbi’s name is “Boner” is supposed to be hilarious, and sentences like this one – “’It’s actually somewhat common for people facing death to reach out to God,’ said Boner, in the exact same self-important, didactic tone he employed as a kid when explaining to us what a blow job was” (57) – abound. I would have found his name funnier if “Boner” weren’t the name of the idiot neighbor on Growing Pains. I like witty rabbi names better when they’re not plagiarized.
The friends and family members who visit the Foxmans to pay their respects during the shiva week all seem to fall into two categories: those whose bodies are described in disgusting terms because they are obese or bear spider veins, bunions, and other marks of age, and those who intend to have sex with a member of the family. I lost count of all the sexual pairings-off in this novel, but here are a few: Paul and Alice (on a schedule, because Alice is ovulating), Alice and Judd (because Alice has begun to suspect that Paul has a low sperm count), Judd and an old girlfriend from high school, Judd and the disgraced Jen, Phillip and Tracy, Phillip and at least one of the former girlfriends who come to visit, Hillary and the neighbor Linda, and Wendy and Linda’s mentally handicapped son Horry. Judd’s disgust with the aging human body rivals that of Jonathan Swift, and the endless descriptions of the bodies of every character in the novel were so overdone that they were offensive. Never have I wished so hard that a novel had not been written in the first person. Judd does, by the way, approve of the limber, nubile bodies of both his adulterous wife Jen and his high school girlfriend Penny.
And so it goes: Judd and his brothers set off the fire alarm in the synagogue by smoking pot in the Sunday-school room; Paul and Alice’s strained, unhappy, goal-oriented sex is broadcast into the shiva room by Wendy’s baby monitor, and a child produces a turd shaped like the letter T (a turd, mind you – not two turds stacked on top of one another to form a T, but one T-shaped turd) and parades it around the house with pride. The novel proceeds clunkily from flashback to flashback, retelling everything from the loss of Judd and Jen’s first baby to a Rottweiler attack sustained by Paul the summer after he graduated from high school. Fistfights and dream sequences and pithy statements on the meaning of life all take their turn at center stage, and then Jen has another scare with her current pregnancy, and both Judd and Wade rush to the hospital to be with her, and just at the moment when the obstetrician declares that she has lost this baby as well as the last one, he moves the instrument just a bit and hears the baby’s heartbeat – because every death comedy, of course, must end with the promise of new life.
And of course, at the end of the novel Judd and his siblings’ suspicion is confirmed: sitting shiva was not their father’s idea but their mother’s – their mother being, of course, the famous child development expert and marriage and family therapist who just knew that what the family needed was some together time.
I didn’t like this book one bit. For a while I laughed at it and mocked it, but then after a while I just despised it. I couldn’t wait to be finished. Judd’s frat-boy attitude toward the human body was part of the reason for my distaste, but mostly I felt as if this author had taken a grab-bag of bad slapstick gags from comedy movies and sitcoms and distilled them into a novel – a novel that seems painfully aware of the fact that it would be better off on the big screen on a Friday night in a college town than on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. I do think there are readers out there who will read this catalogue of the novel’s sins and think the book sounds great (“certainly better than that goddamned Heart of Darkness”, I imagine them saying), and that’s fine. I know that there’s an audience out there for this kind of novel. But I found it insipid and simplistic and cliché-ridden – and did I mention that it’s written in the present tense? Need I say more?