Showing posts with label Jonathan Franzen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Franzen. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Crow Fair and Desperate Characters



One of the pleasures on the boat is having some time to read.   Thomas McGuane’s short story collection, Crow Fair impressed me, reading one short story each evening to completion.  He is a gifted writer and although Montana is his focus and thus the western experience of writers such as Wallace Stegner and Raymond Carver encroach, there are also palettes of Updike and Cheever.  His characters are universal, flawed, sometimes funny, but fundamentally ones you identify or sympathize with, real people in stories that are so natural the denouement suddenly seizes you.  Above all, survival, emotionally as well as physically, is a leitmotif threaded in these stories.  Now I fully understand his close friendship with Jim Harrison.

His story Hubcaps has an exposition that is reminiscent of a Cheever story….By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails.  His mother gave hers some thought, looking upon it as a special treat, while his father served himself a ‘stiff one’ in a more matter-of-fact way, his every movement expressing a conviction that he had a right to this stuff, no matter how disagreeable or lugubrious or romantic it might soon make him….Owen’s mother held her drink between the tips of her fingers; his father held it in his fist.  Owen could see solemnity descend on his father’s brow with the first sip, while his mother often looked apprehensive about the possible hysteria to come.

On a Dirt Road is particularly Carver-like. Ann and the protagonist “need new friends.” A couple moves in a home down the dirt road street where two cars cannot pass, so they see their new neighbors in such a mode neither acknowledging the other. Ann wants to have dinner with the Clearys, old friends, of which our protagonist has tired. Ann says she'll go alone with them to a local pizza joint. Off she goes and our protagonist decides to go meet the new neighbors who turn out to have “issues.”  Nonetheless on the spur of the moment he invites them to go to the pizza place to surprise his wife and the Clearys. The surprise is on him.

In A Long View to the West a man is caring for his dying father who is in the habit of telling or I should say retelling the same stories.  Clay asks his father how he feels about dying, the reply being ‘How should I know? I've never done it before.’  This is when he realizes that he is more frightened than his Dad, also realizing that he needs those stories.

Motherlode is about a “cattle geneticist” who gets caught up in a dangerous scam, way beyond his level of expertise, and he pays the consequences.  The suspense is so carefully built by McGuane that the reader is caught unawares at the end of the story.

Prairie Girl is about a woman who rises from “Butt Hut,” a brothel to bank president, by marrying a gay man from the banking family, having a child by him, and raising the boy as the true love of her life. Peter always wonders about his Mom, never realizing the truth.

River Camp incorporates all the writer’s themes, the role of nature in our insignificant lives, dysfunctional relationships, and the danger that lurks just below the surface because of something which is greater than ourselves.  Two old friends, sometimes adversaries, book a strange guide to lead them on a camping trip in the wilderness, learning more about each, their wives, and then the brutal truth about the guide and what nature has in store for them.

The title story Crow Fair concerns two brothers who learn that their dying mother, suffering from dementia, had a long affair with a Crow Chief who they set out to find. In so doing, the brothers go their separate ways.

Idiosyncratic, funny and sad at the same time, and beautifully written, McGuane tugs at the reader’s heart with simple truths about life.  I’ve mentioned only a few of the stories.  These stories, like Cheever’s and Carver’s deserve to be reread.

Now on to an outstanding novel. Thanks to Jonathan Franzen’s unremitting praise of a “forgotten novel,” I picked up Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters before leaving for the boat.  Here is yet another American classic I could put in the same class as John Williams’ Stoner which was written only five years earlier (Stoner 1965; Desperate Characters 1970).  Those were turbulent years and each novel deals with the turmoil in subtle ways, but mostly through relationships.  Each is written in absolutely exquisite, compact prose. 

Fox’s novel has a special familiarity to me as it is set in Brooklyn, near Brooklyn Heights in the late 1960s, my last years in the exact same place.  Her descriptions of the decadence of New York City are real as it was written at the time when it was experienced.  This is juxtaposed to the decay of the inner lives of the two main characters, Sophie and Otto Bentwood.  They are a childless couple, in their early 40s, living in the slowly gentrified neighborhood bordering Brooklyn Heights.  They also have a Mercedes and a house on Long Island with a barn.  They should be happy, right?

Early in the novel, to Otto’s displeasure, Sophie feeds a feral cat who suddenly lashes out at Sophie, sinking its teeth in her hand.  The incident is the undercurrent of the entire novel as the reader is left wondering whether her decision to not immediately seek medical attention will have serious consequences.  In this regard it is a novel of suspense.  Otto advises that she do so, although, interestingly, he is not absolutely insistent. 

Otto is breaking up with his law partner, Charlie Russel, who has his own marriage difficulties. However these partners, friends from college have gone their separate ways professionally.  But the plot is secondary to the lapidary writing, sentences, paragraphs you just find yourself dwelling over.

When the cat first appears, ramming its head against the glass door, Otto explains “’Ugly Bastard!’ The cat looked at him, then its eyes flicked away.  The house felt powerfully solid to him; the sense of that solidity was like a hand placed firmly in the small of his back.  Across the yard, past the cat’s agitated movements, he saw the rear windows of the houses on the slum street.  Some windows had rags tacked across them, other, sheets of transparent plastic.  From the sill of one, a blue blanket dangled.

When Otto is out of sight, Sophie defies him by feeding the cat, even petting the cat as she serves up some milk.  The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand.  She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.

What struck me was that “friendly human touch” is absent from her marriage and that she suppressed her cry because of Otto being nearby.  Here is a marriage in crisis.

Fox is one of these rare writers who can capture the essence of a person in few words.  Here is her description of one of their friends, a psychiatrist, Myron Holstein who caters to writers and painters:  He didn’t know a thing about her, not even after ten years, but she loved the air of knowingness; the flattery that didn’t obligate her.  And she liked his somewhat battered face, the close-fitting English suits he bought from a London salesman who stopped at a mid-town hotel each year to take orders, the Italian shoes he said were part of his seducer’s costume.  He wasn’t a seducer.  He was remote.  He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.

That last sentence reminds me of Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns or George Barker’s poem To My Mother: “She is a procession no one can follow after / But be like a little dog following a brass band.”

It’s a stalemate relationship between Otto and Sophie.  He refuses to answer the telephone.  She asks, why? “Because I never hear anything on it that I want to hear any more.”  They were both standing rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.  Then he asked her directly why she was angry.  She said she wasn’t angry at all; it was just so tiresome of him to indulge himself about the telephone, to stand there so stupidly while it rang, to force her to do it.  How many of us have played the same tug of war with our spouses?

As a woman in her early 40’s, Sophie’s body is changing.  It comes somewhat as a shock to her:  Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own.  In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure.  She could not eat and drink the way she once had.  Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible.  She had only realized that one was old for a long time.  Old for a long time, how familiar!  Brilliant writing!

As a student I once spent a long time in the emergency room waiting area of the Brooklyn Hospital.  Note how Fox’s sense of realism conjures up such a room in the late 1960s.  Her writing brings alive an experience I had more than 50 years ago: It was like a bus station, an abandoned lot, the aisles in the coaches of the old B & O trains, subway platforms, police stations. It combined the transient quality, the disheveled atmosphere of a public terminal with the immediately apprehended terror of a way station to disaster.  It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined three walls.  It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays.  On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef.  There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes – cleaning fluids embedded in fabric and blooming horridly in the warm sweetish air, picking at the nostrils like thorns – all the exudations of human flesh, a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind.

Yet the heart of the novel is a philosophical question as “desperate characters” seek meaning in a hostile universe, a snapshot of New York City when it reached its nadir in the late 1960s.  As Franzen asks in his introduction: “What is the point of meaning – especially literary meaning – in a rabid modern world?  Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed?”  Striving for the answer, Franzen has read and taught the novel many times.

John Williams’ Stoner has been called “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of. Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is in the same league. 


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Purity – Purely Dazzling



With Updike now gone, and Roth no longer writing, the baton of “Great American Novelist” has been passed to Jonathan Franzen.  After all, he was anointed as such by Time Magazine after the publication of his last novel, Freedom.  Sure, there are other important American novelists; John Irving, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Joyce Carol Oats, to name but a few.  But Franzen happens to stand out, although John Irving also merits such consideration.  Irving is the more prolific and they share a Dickensian perspective on character development and social commentary.  These are writers of substance and so when Franzen’s Purity was published, I made sure I was first on Amazon’s list to receive a copy – it was even delivered on a Sunday.

I wish I had had the time to simply sit down and read it through in a couple of days.  Instead, my usual routines encroached as well as my propensity to draw out the books I enjoy the most, lingering over certain passages.

Franzen, like Irving, is a writer’s writer, possessing a unique take on story development, the intersecting of characters, the timelessness of subjects he covers, as well as his observations of contemporary life.  Remember Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – his social commentary on the themes of the 1980’s, greed, racism, politics and class separation?  Franzen addresses the “new” issues of the post millennium, power struggles between men and women, global warming, the changes wrought by the Internet – both in how we communicate and how it’s impacted interpersonal relationships – and the hanging Sword of Damocles which is nuclear catastrophe.  These are high wire themes, anxiety producing, and disturbing.

So one could say that social realism is Franzen’s strength, but his writing is more than that.  In reading this novel I had the sense that it was writing itself, it having an internal energy that flowed through, rather than by, the author.  I know that sounds otherworldly, but I felt as if I was witnessing something that is happening in the here and now, a story into which the reader gives himself over, with characters that are real.

I used to rely on Updike’s Rabbit novels, a new one published approximately every ten years for four decades, to capture this nation’s Zeitgeist, and I felt part of it.  Franzen is like Updike in this regard, not to mention matching Updike’s towering intellect. These are two very smart, robust writers.  Updike was elegantly fluent with language, whereas Franzen’s prose hits you like a sledgehammer, delving deeply into his characters’ inner lives.   Purity expands upon his last novel, Freedom which concludes with the first few years of the 21st century.  The state of our hyper world is evolving faster than in Updike’s time and it is remarkable to see those changes so well documented in this novel.

At the heart of the story is a literal murder, but there are symbolic murders throughout, men and women in sexual power struggles, adult children and their parents who have their own special power struggles, identity crises in abundance. Through their actions, these characters bring about an existential disconnection that seems to epitomize this second decade of the 21st century.  There is a healthy dose of misanthropic analysis to be pondered.

Structurally the novel consists of several intersecting stories, timelines sometimes out of order.  At the heart is “Pip” as Purity Tyler is known.  Pip’s nickname is Franzen’s hat tip to Dickens’ character in Great Expectations.  Like Dickens’ Pip, Purity is the thread that ties together many lives. First our Pip is on a quest to discover the identity of her father – and by so doing hoping to eradicate a student loan of six figures (“her student debt was functionally a vow of poverty”), and find out exactly who she is, intellectually, morally, socially.  She is adrift and works at a “shit job” (the implication being all loan-burdened graduates are subjugated to those kinds of jobs) as a cold call sales agent for “Renewable Solutions” -- selling home owners on using government renewable energy tax credits by investing in projects for their homes, the firm taking a big slice of the tax credit. 

The work is demeaning to her intellect.  Her boss is demeaning.  She retreats each night to a rented room in a home populated by a number of dissidents who have a Utopian vision – under the rubric of the “Occupy movement.”  Their theory was that the technology driven gains in productivity and the resulting loss of manufacturing jobs would inevitably result in better wealth distribution, including generous payments to most of the population for doing nothing, when Capital realized that it could not afford to pauperize the consumers who bought its robot-made products.  Unemployed consumers would acquire an economic value equivalent to their lost value as actual laborers, and could join forces with the people still working in the service industry, thereby creating a new coalition of labor and the permanently unemployed, whose overwhelming size would compel social change.

She considers the name “Purity” the most shameful word in the English language because it was her given Name.  It made her ashamed of her own driver’s license, the Purity Tyler beside her sullen head shot, and made filling out any application a small torture.

There are two male figures dominating her life, Andreas Wolf, an East German ex-pat, and now a renegade charismatic leader of a Wiki-leaks kind of organization dubbed the “Sunshine Project,” and Tom Aberant, a brilliant on line journalist, founder of the Denver Independent with money left to him by his ex-wife’s father. 

Tom’s ex-wife, with whom he was madly in love, Anabel Laird, eschews money as the root of all her family’s sins, and during their eleven years of marriage leads Tom around like a trained animal.  Hilarious – getting him to pee sitting down as that’s the way women do it!  And she can only have sex during the three days around the full moon. Anabel impresses me as a nut job.

Nonetheless they endure a marriage mired in a “vow of poverty” which culminates in a power struggle sexual conquest.  In a departure from Franzen’s third person narrative, there is one chapter with a first person narrative from Tom’s perspective in which he describes their very strange relationship (in my day, you simply fell in love, got married, and had kids – not so simple any more).

Earlier, Tom had met Andreas, both as relatively young men, a chance meeting, like many of the crisscrossing incidents in the novel (a little like Hardy!), so they have a long standing connection.  Andreas Wolf is compared to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, although Wolf considers his “Sunlight Project” more “purpose driven.”  He becomes an Internet rock star and having come from a totalitarian regime in East Germany finds the Internet at first his savior and then his burden.  He is plainly a sociopath. 

While still in East Germany Andreas meets the beautiful but very young Annagret.  Although she is half his age, Annagret becomes Andreas’ first real love.  He is willing to do anything for her.  Ultimately Annagret becomes part of the Sunlight Project and she is the one who inveigles Pip to join and be an intern in Bolivia where Andreas’ operation becomes ensconced.  Pip becomes Andreas’ new love object as by that time Annagret is out of the picture.  He allows Pip access to some of his inner thoughts:  There's the imperative to keep secrets, and the imperative to have them known. How do you know that you're a person, distinct from other people? By keeping certain things to yourself. You guard them inside you, because, if you don't, there's no distinction between inside and outside. Secrets are the way you know you even have an inside. A radical exhibitionist is a person who has forfeited his identity. But identity in a vacuum is also meaningless. Sooner or later, the inside of you needs a witness. Otherwise you're just a cow, a cat, a stone, a thing in the world, trapped in your thingness. To have an identity, you have to believe that other identities equally exist. You need closeness with other people. And how is closeness built? By sharing secrets.  Pip to Andreas: But it's a pretty weird theory for a person who exposes people's secrets for a living.

Andreas remembers the Old Republic in light of today’s massive disintermediation by technology, an interesting passage which in effect describes a “new class” that is nonetheless as heartless as the class it replaced:  The privileges available in the Republic had been paltry, a telephone, a flat with some air and light, the all-important permission to travel, but perhaps no paltrier than having x number of followers on Twitter, a much-liked Facebook profile, and the occasional four-minute spot on CNBC. The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory over the class enemy was assured…. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic's buzz-words, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.

After Tom’s torturous relationship and parting with his wife, a professional journalist, Leila, enters Tom’s life.  Leila’s relationship with Tom is an unusual one as she continues to be married to an over-the-hill, and now partially paralyzed, novelist /professor, Charles, keeping two homes, one with Charles and the other with Tom.  One of the overarching themes of the novel – the “new” feminism is expressed in her relationship with Tom:  Tom was a strange hybrid feminist, behaviorally beyond reproach but conceptually hostile. ‘I get feminism on an equal-rights issue….What I don’t get is the theory.  Whether women are supposed to be exactly the same as men, or different and better than men.’  And he’d laughed the way he did at things he found silly, and Leila had remained angrily silent, because she was a hybrid the other way around:  conceptually a feminist but one of those women whose primary relationships had always been with men and who had benefited professionally, all her life, from her intimacy with them.  She’d felt attacked by Tom’s laughter, and the two of them had been careful never to discuss feminism again.

After Pip interns for Andreas on the Sunshine Project (naturally, Andreas falls for Pip but Pip keeps her distance with some regrets), she winds up as Leila’s protégé in Denver, learning the craft of journalism. (Long story about the “coincidence” that leads to that connection and a spoiler as well, so enough said.) But Leila is jealous of Pip’s good looks and youth.  

Leila – with Pip as her researcher, skills she learned from the Sunshine Project --is trying to scoop a story for Tom’s online Denver Independent before the Washington Post gets to it: the lack of controls of a nuclear arsenal in Amarillo.  Here Franzen gives a humorous hat tip to the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove, with Maj. 'King' Kong played by Slim Pickens riding a thermonuclear bomb to its target. Two minor characters in the novel, Cody, who has stolen a replica of an A-Bomb, and his girlfriend, Phyllisha who thinks it is real (and it could have been because of the lack of controls) play out this scene:   He wanted her to feel the kind of power he had at his disposal.  He wanted her to take off all her clothes and put her arms around the bomb and stick her little tail up for him….She went ahead and did what he said….To be that close to so much potential death and devastation, to have her sweaty skin against the cool skin of a death-bomb, to imagine the whole city going up in a mushroom cloud when she orgasmed.  It was pretty great, she had to say.

It is through Tom and Leila that thermonuclear anxiety and a healthy dose of misanthropy emerges: Tom's theory of why human beings had yet to receive any message from extraterrestrial intelligences was that all civilizations, without exception, blew themselves up almost as soon as they were able to get a message out, never lasting more than a few decades in a galaxy whose age was billions; blinking in and out of existence so fast that, even if the galaxy abounded with earthlike planets, the chances of one civilization sticking around to get a message from another were vanishingly low, because it was too damned easy to split the atom. Leila neither liked this theory nor had a better one; her feeling about all doomsday scenarios was Please make me the first person killed; but she'd forced herself to read accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and what it was like to have had your skin burned off entirely and still be staggering down a street, alive. Not just for Pip’s sake did she want the Amarillo story to be large. The world's fear of nuclear weapons was unaccountably unlike her fear of fighting and, vomiting: the longer the world lasted without ending in mushroom clouds, the less afraid people seemed to be….Climate change got more ink in a day than nuclear arsenals did in a year. To say nothing of the NFL, passing records that Peyton Manning had broken as a Denver Bronco.  Leila was afraid and felt like the only one who was.

Amen to that, Jonathan Franzen.

Speaking of Jonathans, Franzen knows how to engage in some self deprecating humor, Leila’s novelist husband, Charles, saying to Pip: So many Jonathans.  A plague of literary Jonathans.  If you read only New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America. Synonymous with talent, greatness.  Ambition, vitality.

In Andreas’ life we have an overbearing mother, as we have a passive but doting mother in Pip’s life and Tom’s mother is omnipresent, warning Tom about Anabel.  There are story lines galore, many characters, multigenerational dysfunctionality, and then the real world of the 21st century to channel.  Franzen captures all in this episodic novel.

[Pip] and her peers were well aware of what a terminally fucked-up world they were inheriting. Towards the end of the novel Pip was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power.  Secrets were power.  Money was power.  Being needed was power.  Power, power, power:  how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? But those thoughts did not deter her from her quest for honesty and trust which underlies her entire journey. 

One can only have “great expectations” for Jonathan Franzen’s future work.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Even if the Dream Isn't Real, the Dreamers Are"


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.