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.”
Days of emotional manipulation and hijinks follow (breaking down doors! escaping from the hospital!) while Silver reassures his friends and family that he really, really doesn’t mind dying. It’s all mugging for sympathy: Hug me. Heal me. Love me.
His father, a rabbi, takes him along to witness the great moments in life; his engaged ex-wife sleeps with him; and his pregnant teenage daughter moves in. The tone swings erratically from maudlin reflection to punchy banter that sounds cringingly fake:
“You’ve got yourself a roommate.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m pregnant and you’re suicidal. We’ll have a blast.”
“I’m not suicidal.”
“Yeah, and I’m not pregnant. . . .”
“You’re an idiot.”
“It runs in the family.”
Late in the novel Silver is still telling us, “I don’t know how I became this person, this quiet, pathetic waste of space.” When Marilynne Robinson and William Kennedy create such hollowed-out men, they can haunt you for weeks. But here, the whole enterprise reeks of fermented self-pity. This lovable screw-up may get his heart fixed, but this novel’s sentimentality is fatal.
For a more satisfying and altogether more original comedy about the dejected American male, turn to Pauls Toutonghi’s second novel, “Evel Knievel Days.” A half-Egyptian and half-Latvian American who lives in Seattle, Toutonghi has a light touch that can dart between slapstick and deadpan humor. His protagonist here is Khosi Saqr, a great-great-grandson of the founder of a vast copper empire in Butte, Mont., the birthplace of the eponymous motorcycle daredevil. Khosi is an eccentric autodidact who ventures out only to work in a local history museum and tries not to resent his reputation as “western Montana’s most famous half-Egyptian shut-in.” His life has been considerably constrained by his obsessive-compulsive disorder and his sense of responsibility for his mother. She’s a caterer who specializes in Egyptian fare, using recipes passed along by the man who abandoned them 20 years ago. “Despite her hatred for my father’s onions,” Khosi says, “my mother could not let go of her love for his food.”
As the novel opens, their lives are upended when that errant ne’er-do-well flies in from Egypt for just a few hours to get divorce papers signed and announce that he’s dying. Suddenly, Khosi cannot bear his highly regulated life any longer. Unable to have the young woman he loves, increasingly aware that everyone else’s life is moving forward, and determined to make contact with his elusive father, he breaks out of his compulsive routines and hops on a plane to Cairo. “The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast,” he says. “On the one side: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatsoever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.”
Amid all the corny antics in Cairo, where most of the book takes place, we get a story about discovering your roots, forgiving your parents and eating great food. Some of this may make no sense, but nonetheless Toutonghi wins us over with lots of madcap family hysteria as the ridiculous lies from Khosi’s father are spun and unspun. And what tale in the cradle of civilization would be complete without a few spectral visits from the ghost of an Old West Montana pioneer?
The nervous energy of Toutonghi’s storytelling is charming, even though it forces him to run quickly across ground that indicates more substance than he’s willing to mine. Passing remarks about the environmental effects of the copper industry and the loneliness of being dark-skinned in an all-white town fly through Khosi’s chatty narrative. One moment, he’s describing the eerie boxes of the artist Joseph Cornell; another, he’s alluding to Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital,” Alice B. Toklas’s creme brulee or the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. But this is a narrator so anxious about losing our attention that the story remains as sweet and light as his aunts’ famed baklava.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
ONE LAST THING BEFORE I GO
By Jonathan Tropper
Dutton. 324 pp. $26.95
EVEL KNIEVEL DAYS
By Pauls Toutonghi
Crown. 293 pp. $24