20th century American literature is awash in a particular version of the American Dream, the green light that always seems to be in grasp through the accumulation of wealth. But as Balzac purportedly opined, "behind every great fortune there is a great crime", be it to society or one's family or both. It plays out in our literature and one only has to read a newspaper to see it in life. Gatsby or Madoff, living the dream, for love or money or both, at least for a while.
In the last thirty years we have had two real estate busts, people pinning their hopes of wealth by buying and selling, flipping,the greater fool theory at work in its purist form, like a game of musical chairs, until the music stopped. And so it is for the protagonist in Eric Puchner's first novel, Model Home, as well as it was for the author's father. While the novel is in some ways autobiographical, in subtle or more transparent ways, so are most novels.
For some time I've been "worrying" about who will carry on the tradition established by our great American novelists and short story writers, the most recent ones (in my opinion) being John Updike, Philip Roth, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver and perhaps to that list I might add some of my other favorites, ones who could join the ranks of the big four, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Russell Banks, E.L. Doctorow, Richard Ford, and Jonathan Franzen (merely on the merits of two novels). Unfortunately, of the first four, only Roth is still alive, but anything he writes, and the others I mentioned, I will buy and read. That goes for Pat Conroy, Anita Shreve, and Ethan Canin as well.
So it was a thunderclap when I read Eric Puchner's novel (hat tip to my son, Jonathan). Here is a serious contemporary writer who knows how to tell a tale, paint a picture of American life through his characters, make us feel moved, walking the line through the comic-tragic, drawing us into something important about family relationships. It remains to be seen whether his first novel will be his best, a literary catharsis of his own life experiences, or whether this is setting him up for a truly great literary career. Puchner also has published a collection of short stories, Music Through the Floor, and although I have not yet read them (but will do so), I understand there are elements of Carver and Cheever in those stories. I can't think of a higher praise than that.
The story itself, although set in the 1980s, is as relevant for today's economic times. It is about a family, the Zillers, who have moved to California for the "good life" -- a family which was close when they lived with more modest expectations in the Midwest -- but now find themselves being pulled apart. The father, Warren Ziller, hides his deteriorating economic circumstances from his family, which makes his wife, Camille, suspect him of having an affair. No such luck -- that would have been an easier road to travel.
In an ironic twist, the real estate development that Warren had been hawking, in the middle of the desert, but portrayed by him as an upcoming idyllic community (with the promise of a major shopping center which is actually being constructed as a waste treatment plant that stinks up the neighborhood literally, and their lives figuratively), ultimately becomes their own home, the only such residents, when Warren's secret comes out and his older son, Dustin, suffers disfigurement from the explosion and fire of their former home before it was repossessed. Meanwhile, his younger sister, Lyle, has had an affair with the security guard from their former community, Hector, who later becomes Dustin's caretaker (for reasons best explained by reading the novel). The younger child, Jonas, is neglected by his family, left to wander the desert outskirts.
This is a family that has been incinerated by the American Dream, and after a metaphorical climax, they are hurled in different directions. Puchner draws heavily on his own family history to portray the heartbreak of this devolution. Some of the author's feelings about his own childhood are endowed in Jonas.
Most great writers have a strong sense of place. Cheever had his NYC suburbs, Updike had New England and PA, Roth harkens back to Newark and its environs, Richard Ford's New Jersey, and Anne Tyler and Baltimore are peas in a pod. Puchner has staked out California to explain his version of the American dream. Ah, California, when as a publisher, I used to visit the American Film Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, monuments to the documentation of the American dream itself. I felt LA, or at least that part of it, was unreal.
Puchner's particular focus is not California's glamorous Hollywood, it is the underbelly of the American dream as played out in the California desert. Remember Dreiser's lobster and squid in mortal combat, a scene from his The Financier? As a child, Frank Cowperwood, the young financier, watches this battle in a fish tank, Dreiser writing: "It answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: How is life organized? Things lived on each other – that was it…Sure, men lived on men.”
I couldn't help but think of that quote reading Puchner's description of Jonas' sojourns in the California desert: "Most days he spent roaming the desert. It was a relief to be free of school, that gloomy place where the teachers wore shorts and his locker was so hot he had to open it with a sock over his hand, where no one spoke to him except the garbled voice in his head and he'd somehow completed his transformation into a ghost. In the desert, at least, there were extraordinary things. There were scorpions eating each other. There were rats hopping around like kangaroos. There were wasps dragging tarantulas around by the leg. There were snake skins dried into paper, bird nests as small as contact lenses, lizard skeletons dangling from creosote bushes, delicate as ice. Once, not far from the house, he saw a roadrunner go after a rattlesnake, its right wing extended like a matador's cape, When the snake lunged, the roadrunner snapped up its tail and then cracked it like a whip, slamming its head against the ground - over and over - to bash its skull."
And when one pursues dreams of riches, or in its more sanitized version, the better life, there are winners and losers. Even the material winners may find their dreams to be vapid. Warren's fall from grace is even harder, a once happy family, now grappling with his mismanagement and unfortunate economic circumstances. Like Madoff, Warren's life became one of lies and self deceit, convincing himself that even though they were rapidly running out of funds, the big payoff will come when he makes a success of his land development scheme (Auburn Fields, an ironic name for a place in the middle of the desert), all will be well: "He did not want to lie to her, but every time he considered telling her the truth-that he'd lost their retirement funds, the kids' college funds, and every fund in between-his tongue dried up like paper and he couldn't speak. When he managed to get Auburn Fields off the ground, he reminded himself, he'd be able to put the money back in."
And dreams are not only Warren's. His wife, Camille, pursues approbation from her family and colleagues as a producer of educational films, without much success. Ultimately she has to leave him: "She could forgive him for moving them out to California, perhaps, for bankrupting them in pursuit of some fantasy of wealth, for falling victim to a malady of shame he could never pay off -- she could forgive Warren these things, but this was different from getting over them. In the end it was her disappointment in him that had proved toxic. He'd squandered the life they might have had together....Now that she'd left, she could see him more clearly: a broken man, well-meaning but not as brave as life required, who'd become something he'd never imagined."
Dustin, the older son, sees a fabulous career for himself as a rock musician but becomes a withdrawn malcontent after being disfigured in the explosion. Jonas who is mistakenly blamed (by himself as well) for Dustin's accident becomes the invisible child. Lyle, the daughter, has dreams of attending Columbia, but is convinced that hope is remote: "Driving to work, Lyle tried not to let the monotonous brown vistas lull her into a coma. She distracted herself by touching the Columbia bumper sticker on the dashboard. She made an effort whenever she could, so that its Ivy League juju would enter her fingers and climb upward to her brain, transforming her into a perfect applicant. She liked to fantasize that she was the only one to get a sticker in the mail: so eager was Columbia to have her as a student, they'd slipped it into her application materials like Willy Wonka's golden ticket. Lyle had stuck it on the dashboard to remind herself -while she was driving through the barren, dream-sucking desert - that she wouldn't be living out here forever."
Each family member feels like he/she is on the outside, looking in, dazed by the events that profoundly change their individual lives and drive them apart. Puncher writes from Camille's perspective: "What had happened? How had they unraveled again, worse than before? The mystery of life was not how it started, Camille thought. It was how people with every excuse to be close could grow distant as satellites." Then, there is Warren's take on it: "What an odd thing a family was, Warren thought. The permutations, like the patterns of a chess game, seemed endless."
In fact, the forty-nine chapters of the novel constantly switch back and forth between the main characters, almost like a series of tightly woven short stories with the commonality of the Ziller family experience. And Puchner's writing can be quite moving and beautiful, such as when towards the end of the novel, Warren is trying to make a living and salvage some self respect working as a cutlery salesman, and while selling to a woman who has a son and a daughter, younger than his, Warren "pretends" that his own family is watching him in action: "He was making a pitch to them as well, the family he'd lost. It was not the words themselves that mattered but the fact that he was making them. He was doing something for a change. In the end, if it was a good-enough pitch, his family might even buy what he had to offer. They would say, It's not too late, you've actually learned something, your life hasn't been entirely hapless and for naught." Knowing Warren's huge fall from grace, these words are heart-rendering.
A "must read" companion piece is GQ's March 2011 nonfiction piece by the author, Schemes of My Father; Like most California dreamers, my East Coast dadtried to relocate—and reinvent—himself in the land of red-hot cars and eternalsuntans. Too bad we all got burned It explains much about the novel's autobiographical elements and passion, particularly the author's love for the "real California" which is not the beach life that we've all associated with the state. As Puchner puts it: "It's this real California—and not the one my father invented for us—that I still call home, one that's closer to my heart than any place on earth. There's something about my father's love for the state, no matter how misdirected it was, that seems to have seeped into my blood. Or perhaps it's the love itself that I love. Which is to say: Even if the dream isn't real, the dreamers are. There's something about the struggling actors and screenwriters and immigrants who live here, the pioneer spirit that despite everything still brings people to the edge of America in search of success, that makes me feel at home." Puchner writes with uncommon honesty.
The novel made me think of the "model homes" of my own life. We bought our first home in Westport, CT in 1971, staying there for only three years. Although a cottage, it was situated on two beautiful acres of pine forest. We moved to Weston, CT where we lived for twenty two years, the home where we raised our family. It too was secluded in the woods. We constantly worked on the house, expanding it until it was truly a rambling ranch. I wept the day we left that house, not only because of what we put into it, but for the symbolism of leaving it with our sons now grown. Ironically, it was ripped down a few years after we moved to build one of those "McMansions," all that work, all those years, poof! -- vanished! This was followed by four years in a home on the Norwalk River, perhaps the home that had the most spectacular views, as Oyster Boats went out each day or barges would move up the river. Then finally our home of the last twelve years in Florida, again on the water, where one can always find that special sunset. So, two homes in the woods and two homes on the water and none in the desert. We've been lucky.
I eagerly await Puchner's next work.