By Carolyn See
Friday, March 12, 2010; C04
By Eric Puchner
Scribner. 360 pp. $26
We all operate under the spell of a convenient set of delusions: that women can be "made over" to look prettier than they actually are, for example; or that with enough diet and exercise we can live to 100. Our favorite delusion, the one on which this great country was built, is that with enough hard work, Americans can become anything -- and have anything -- that they want. A fair amount of good literature has been written about the failure of this American dream, but the failure part usually comes at the end of the story. Eric Puchner's first novel, "Model Home," puts that dismaying fate at the very beginning and proceeds from there.
Warren Ziller, who previously lived a pleasant enough life with his family on the shore of a lake in Wisconsin, becomes entranced by a bright idea that could make him a fortune: He develops a piece of land out in the Mojave Desert, about 100 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The place where he builds his handful of houses is a most unappetizing patch of sand and scrub, but he isn't a mad man. After World War II, hundreds of developers perceived their futures to be in desert land, and until a few years ago that land was a gold mine.
So Warren isn't a maniac to invest in desert property and build tacky affordable housing, just unlucky. No one has told him about the toxic waste dump someone else is locating just a few miles away. But Warren has already moved across the country and settled his family in a gated community south of L.A. overlooking the ocean. Herradura Estates (actually Palos Verdes Estates) features teenage girls trotting along bridle paths and peacocks wandering scenically across owners' front lawns. But it's too good to be true, and far too expensive. Warren begins to borrow from his children's college accounts. It's a nightmare, but he can't get up the nerve to tell his family what's happening.
His family: a sweet wife named Camille, who makes terrible educational films for a middle school audience; the eldest son, Dustin, impossibly handsome, a surfer who's been going out with beautiful Kira, who's planning to yield up her virginity to him on the first anniversary of their romance; Lyle, a cranky, impossibly pale high school girl who hates everyone and refuses to fit into Southern California culture; and Jonas, 11, nobody's favorite.
Part 1 of this novel tells the story of "before" -- before anyone except Warren knows anything about their financial crisis. Dustin, star of his own life drama, develops a sexual obsession with Kira's emotionally disturbed little sister, who worries her earlobes into hideous scabs, samples any amount of recreational drugs and eats glass as an attention-getting device. Lyle, who drips with shame for herself and everybody else, begins to have sex with a Mexican kid who opens and shuts the gate in their gated community. Jonas mopes along. Camille finally makes a film so bad that her family can't even joke about it. When their car gets repossessed, Warren pretends it's been stolen. Then their leased furniture gets taken away. Warren is increasingly entangled in his lies, but he can't seem to come clean about their situation.
Then, just before Part 2, all hell breaks lose. One of the minor screw-ups that accrue around the Zillers magnifies into tragedy. Until this point, the family has believed that they will get ahead because everybody else in America is getting ahead. All the way along, it's possible to see things that Warren ought to have done to avoid his fate. But then we readers should consider all the evenings we may have had too much to drink, or didn't have the courage to make the important phone call, or the plain fact that most of America is probably made up of people who aren't as bright as they should be, and that might include the person who's writing this review, or maybe even someone who's reading it. The American promise of success is often just what it says: a dream. "In truth there was not much time, a blip, and most of what you did was a mistake," a chastened Warren thinks toward the end of this narrative. "You were lucky to find a safe and proper home." And that, the author suggests, is what it really comes down to: decent meals, a roof over your head and, with luck, relatives or friends who will gather to help you when your life smashes to bits.
The Ziller family is utterly believable here. Little Jonas, the kid whom nobody loves, is the perfect example. It's left absolutely up in the air what's to become of him -- or his brother, or sister or parents. Sure, if you work hard and don't screw up, you could succeed, except for the fact that everyone screws up mightily sometime. It's actually a miracle that any one of us stays alive from breakfast to lunch. There's a terrible shame involved if you fail in America. But that shame is universal. It clings to us like an invisible, sticky veil. That's what this estimable book is about.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
Sunday in Outlook
-- Michael Lewis on the financial crisis.
-- Raising kids in the age of psychopharmacology.
-- More from the sexual life of Catherine M.
-- The screwball world of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney.
-- And the remarkable life of Mark Twain.