Over the last few years, Jonathan Tropper has asserted himself something of a master of the genre I like to call Novels About Middle-Aged Suburban Men Whose Lives Aren't Awful, Just Unsatisfying. His latest, though, was surprisingly satisfying. I was a little underwhelmed by This is Where I Leave You
, but I think that was mostly because of where I was in my life more than anything about the book itself. With that in mind, I did approach this with a small amount of skepticism but ultimately I came away with a nice, healthy dose of the feels.
The set-up here is just a little darker. Drew Silver is a washed-up one-hit-wonder playing the wedding-and-mitzvah circuit. His ex-wife Denise is getting remarried to a guy Silver can't bring himself to hate, and his teenage daughter Casey has just announced she's pregnant. He lives in an apartment building with a bunch of other middle-aged men whose wives have left them and together they make weekly trips to sell their semen to medical research. He cruises through life more or less on autopilot, not really noticing the hurt caused by his lack of engagement.
Then Silver has a ministroke and an aneurysm, diagnosed by his ex-wife's new fiancee Rich. Equal parts pride and surrender prevent him from allowing Rich to repair the tear in his aorta, meaning that Silver could literally die at any second. He's okay with that, because he's lost everything that's ever meant anything to him and he doesn't see how life is ever going to have meaning again. Then Casey reveals her pregnancy, admitting that she's telling Silver before her mother because she's less concerned about letting him down. So Silver decides that in the time he has left, he needs to make up for eighteen years of crummy fathering.
The first chunk of the book is a little too full of hyperbole and testosterone for my taste -- Silver and his fortysomething buddies ogling young women with perfectly taut everythings while exchanging excessively witty one-liners. After a while, though, Tropper finds his groove and the book finds the right balance between poignant and schmaltzy. You start to sympathize with Silver, genuinely root for this man who has never proven to be anything but an apathetic fuck-up. And yet he's anything but unlikable. There's maybe a little flash of George Bailey here, as Silver learns what he means to the people in his life, yet it never quite falls over into excessive sentiment.