By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 25, 2009
THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU
By Jonathan Tropper
Dutton. 339 pp. $25.95
Judd Foxman, the hapless narrator of Jonathan Tropper's hilarious new novel, "This Is Where I Leave You," can hardly believe it when his sister, Wendy, phones to say that their father is dead. But even more shocking is the news that Dad's last request was for them to sit shiva for seven days. This traditional Jewish form of mourning requires that the family reunite, cover the mirrors so as not to think of vanity, and open the home to friends and relatives so that they can all pay honor to the deceased.
If that sounds like a bad Thanksgiving dinner that goes on for a week, it is, and Judd's heart sinks. He knows that his older brother, Paul, can barely stand the sight of him and that Phillip, his younger brother, has screwed up with so many bad investments and drug deals that the family can barely stand the sight of him, either. Their mother is an embarrassment on countless levels; she sports breast implants the size of volley balls, dresses like a hooker and, most maddeningly of all, has written a book on child rearing called "Cradle and All," which has become an American classic coming up on its 25th anniversary.
Why, God, why? Judd wonders. Why has his father seen fit to put them through this? He wasn't even religious.
Judd's not up for it. He's still reeling from his own family debacle. Just a few weeks before, he came home from work to surprise his wife, Jen, with a birthday cake full of lit candles and, in the words of the old song, got a crash course in "the cold hard facts of life." Judd caught his wife in bed with his own notoriously crude boss, shock jock Wade Boulanger. After watching this disheartening spectacle for a minute or two, Judd jammed the cake onto his boss's behind, setting him on fire.
But all this is a mere diversion from the awful reality. His wife, his beloved wife, has been having an affair with this coarse lizard of a man for about a year, and Judd's entire appraisal of himself has been shattered. He takes shelter in an all-encompassing rage, which is painful but emotionally safe. He throws some furniture around and quits his job and rebuffs Jen at every turn. The more she tearfully says they have to talk, the more he sneers.
So, Judd's idea of a good time in the midst of all this drama is certainly not hauling out to his old childhood home and sitting shiva. But there it is; he has to do it. The funeral is rainy and predictably glum; the younger brother is predictably late. Their old house, diminished and sad, sports shiva chairs low to the ground. His mom's best friend is pitching in with food, and her brain-damaged son lurks in the kitchen. The new rabbi was in high school with the older Foxman boys, who remember him as an avid porno fan. The seven days of shiva get off to a bleak start.
The Foxman brothers may look like grown men flirting with middle age, but over the period of a week we see that they're still kids, nursing adolescent grudges, smarting from old hurts. Paul, the eldest, has good reason to blame Judd for an accident that robbed him of a baseball career -- or maybe it isn't a good reason, and maybe his baseball career was nothing but a fantasy. Whatever the real story, Paul bursts into tears over it in a bar where the brothers go to drown in a mixture of grief, testosterone and the general confusions of life.
They're right to be confused. When Jen suddenly appears, Judd rails at her with Victorian prudery, but then commits an act of adulterous misbehavior that's bound to guarantee some very bad family holidays in the future if anyone ever finds out. And their sister is up to shenanigans of her own, as is their mom, who remains reassuringly grotesque, but who still carries the capacity to surprise.
The Foxman brothers must become men, though, God knows, they don't want to. They want to remain hard-punching, dope-smoking, lighthearted pranksters, but life won't stand for that. Forgiveness, compassion and compromise are all in the cards for them now that their dad has died. This is a beautiful novel about men -- their lust and rage and sweetness. Read it -- or take it as a gift -- when you next go on a dreaded family holiday.
See can be reached at http://www.carolynsee.com.
Sunday in Outlook
-- A fiery peace in a Cold War.
-- A global quest for better health care.
-- An umpire's horrible burden.
-- The man who loved books too much.
-- And the soldiers who saved Western art.