Paul Lohman, who narrates “The Dinner,” is a bitter man. He doesn’t mildly dislike but loathes his much more successful brother, Serge. “With every fiber of his being,” Paul says, “Serge had remained a yokel, a boorish lout.” Everything Serge does — including magnanimously adopting a boy from Africa — strikes Paul as infuriatingly false. It amazes Paul that his pretty sister-in-law can tolerate Serge. “I would have paid a fortune to see and hear just once how things went in the bedroom between him and Babette. On the other hand, there is a part of me that would actually resist that with every fiber of my being, that would pay an equally great fortune never to have to find out.”
Paul hates most everything: the restaurant’s food, the waiter, the decor, the music playing on the radio, corn on the cob. Fired from his job as a high school history teacher for expressing some of his more marginal opinions about, for instance, the victims of World War II, Paul particularly hates liberals such as his erstwhile school principal, who “was probably against global warming and injustice in general. Perhaps he didn’t eat the flesh of mammals and was anti-American or, in any case, anti-Bush: the latter stance gave people carte blanche not to think about anything anymore.”
Koch presents Paul Lohman as a model of the Dutch personality: outwardly mild and diffident, yet inwardly seething and about to blow. Much of the novel’s best comedy attacks Dutch mediocrity and predictability. Paul imagines his brother displaying his poor table manners at the White House. “ ‘He’s from Holland,’ they would say — or perhaps only think to themselves, which was even worse. That sense of vicarious shame was a constant. Our being ashamed of our prime ministers was the only feeling that created a seamless connection between one Dutch administration and the next.”
The only things Paul admires, it seems, are his wife and son. He will do anything to defend them. Anything. Evidence-tampering, certainly. Maybe worse. There’s a bank surveillance tape that shows the two brothers’ sons impishly hurling objects at the smelly vagrant camped out in the ATM booth. Luckily, you can see only their shoes — at least until the adopted African son, also along that fateful evening, provides a better video and becomes a blackmailer. The unfortunate event threatens not just the children’s lives, but Serge’s political career.
It takes a long time to reach this material. First, we must get past aperitif, appetizer, etc. Readers will find Paul’s shaggy-dog set pieces about the restaurant either delightful amuse-bouches or insubstantial. Pretentious foodies seem like an easy target, likewise the outrageous bills at snooty emporiums. The material about modern parenthood — our stubborn defense of our children, our deep compulsion to believe that they can do no wrong — is the novel’s most interesting, and it would be nice if it got more prominence. By the time we get to the surprising denouement, which Koch sets in motion with gleeful speed, both meal and novel are basically done.
Think of Paul as a Dutch Larry David, pointing out the absurdities of our privileged daily lives. The difference between the provocateurs is that we laugh both at and with Larry David. About most of Paul’s snide comments, we do neither, quite — mostly because too much is at stake for the lightness of the jokes. It’s hard to imagine Larry David riffing about a murder. Not that it’s impossible to joke about serious matters (see “Lolita” and that particular unsavory unreliable narrator). But Koch’s attempt at tonal complexity often comes off as tonal muddiness.
Zeidner’s fifth novel, “Love Bomb,” was recently published. She is a professor at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.