In 2010, during the coronation of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” a popular author of commercial women’s fiction named Jennifer Weiner sparked a firestorm in the fragile ecosystem of the literati. Perched safely atop her 11 million copies in print, she dared to complain about the unequal critical attention paid to novels by men and those by women. The ruckus started on Twitter, a uniquely bad place to articulate a complex argument, and Weiner’s point was quickly obscured by a clash of giant personalities and hashtags.
It’s distressing, of course, when a woman is right; when she’s witty, too, it’s intolerable. Fortunately, we can draw upon a reliable cache of special words to denigrate women’s speech, from “harping” to “bitching,” but until the waiters could shoo these harridans from the old boys club, we had to hear them nagging: When a man writes a novel about marriage and family, we call it “literature”; when a woman does it, we call it “women’s fiction.”
I kept thinking about this debate while reading Jonathan Tropper’s mildly amusing, ultimately annoying new novel, “One Last Thing Before I Go.” Offering a male alternative to “chick lit,” Tropper had something going in his previous novel, “This Is Where I Leave You,” one of the best comedies of 2009. But his new novel has neither the sperm count for “lad lit” nor the endearing charm of Nick Hornby. Instead, “One Last Thing Before I Go” mopes along in that long line of “whiny man” books — stories about white guys who just can’t seem to figure out why their lives aren’t going better. If you write like Hemingway or Updike, the whiny man’s plight can be transcendent and profound. But without that kind of stylistic magic and psychological insight, it’s like being trapped at Denny’s with an old friend from high school who’s just moved back in with his parents.
The most tiresome kind of whiny man (in literature and at Denny’s) is the kind who keeps telling you how pathetic he is. And this, sadly, is exactly the man we get in “One Last Thing Before I Go.” Drew Silver is 44 years old, depressed, lumpy, divorced and unemployed. Years ago, his band enjoyed a summer of meteoric fame, but that passed quickly, and now he’s “painfully aware, on a daily basis, of all the things you can never get back.” To prove how often he feels this way, he feels this way just 17 pages later when “he feels something he’s become accustomed to lately, a dull, humming grief for all the things he can never get back.” He’s “a middle aged mess of a man with restless leg, ringing ears, and an aching heart.” He lives in a sad one-bedroom apartment in a complex with other divorced men — Oliver, the kindly grump; Jack, the “oversexed misogynist” — the pals we expect in a straight-to-DVD buddy film. “We’re all cliches,” one character thinks in the novel’s truest moment.
Then Silver has a heart attack, the literary kind that sparks an existential crisis but no serious disability. His ex-wife’s new fiance — a handsome doctor, of course — tells Silver that if he has surgery, he can go on to live a normal life, but if he doesn’t, he’ll die soon. Silver doesn’t want to live anymore because of all those things he can never get back. “They can go in and fix me,” he sighs, “but when I wake up, I won’t be any better.”