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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Home, Again

I usually write something about returning home after a summer on the boat and traveling but never got around to it this year. All hell broke loose upon our return, having to do some landscaping after another typical brutal hot Florida summer finally killed some of our original plantings, and, then (after committing to the landscaping), finding a leak around the eaves of the roof which revealed the roof underlayment was decaying (thanks, again, Florida!). While we could patch and fix for the next couple of years, ultimately the roof will need replacement. It would be only a matter of time before water encroaches the living space. So, now that new plantings are in around the house, we are starting a new roof. Bad planning.

In the process of getting four different estimates I've become an expert in roofing, underlayments, attachment methods, and tiles. Metal roofs are the vogue now in Florida, but I think they are ugly on some homes, including ours which has a Mediterranean look. So we are going with a Spanish "S" concrete title and 3M's Polyset roofing system. While the expense is substantial, the new roof will be beautiful and with hurricane protection to 150 mph.

So between landscaping, roofing estimates, the round of obligatory medical appointments, and volunteering to be the pianist during visitors' hours at a West Palm Beach rehab center, it's been a busy period. Nonetheless, there is always time for some good literature and in that regard here are two I finished at the end of the days and while waiting for appointments.

Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water, is a gem, beautifully crafted with multiple converging story lines. The child of a Jewish immigrant makes his way to America with his mother, leaving behind his father who stubbornly stays, not believing what was coming, when the Nazis finally prevail in the 1930's.. His mother ultimately settles in Brooklyn, remarries the devout Hank Kleinman, from whom our protagonist August Kleinman derives his surname.

But the novel begins with Augie in his 78th year, a widower and father of three children, a man who pursued the American Dream through hard work, taking chances, and surviving WWII, the latter playing significantly in the novel. When Augie was a soldier he came across a Japanese soldier in a cave on one of the Japanese islands who has his own story, one that August becomes part of at the end. Meanwhile, after the war, August Kleinman becomes wealthy (a prevailing theme in Canin's work -- the juxtaposition of rags and riches).

Canin skillfully navigates multiple time lines, effortlessly leading the reader back and forth from Kleinman's childhood, to his long marriage to Ginger, often talking to her internally as he steers himself through those narrow cave passages when he was a GI, to his building a successful brewery in Pittsburg, and finally his declining years as he tries to make sense of his relationship to his middle child, Jimmy. During a visit with Jimmy and his wife and grandchild, he makes plans to go to Japan to find closure, for himself and for the family of the Japanese soldier. In the process, he is reconciling himself to his own mortality ("And the end is getting nearer. I know that. Don't think I can't feel it. But I don't give up. That's just Augie Kleinman. I always thought I had a secret that when the end came I would be ready for it -- that the grave would be a relief. But it turns out it's not that way.")

As with all fine pieces of literature, the characters are real, and their conflicts familiar. It is the way of life and Canin captures it poignantly.

In an earlier posting on America America by Canin, I said, "sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one" (Canin teaches at the University of Iowa's writer's workshop)." Carry Me Across The Water is another example of a carefully executed piece of literature, a novella in length but packing meaning and emotion at every turn of the page.

I landed on this novel after more hilarity from the pen of Jonathan Tropper, enjoying his How to Talk to a Widower, cut out of the same mold of the others I've read by him, Everything Changes, This is Where I Leave You, and The Book of Joe. How many times can an author pretty much cover the same ground, the searching-thirty-something male adrift in a sea of Jewish family foibles and suburban females, married and unmarried and divorced or soon to be divorced, sexual predators at times. Here our protagonist is now Doug Parker who becomes a local newspaper celebrity writing a column about his status as a widower and his twin sister Claire's designs for him to snap out of his long-standing grief. Meanwhile he has to negotiate his younger sister's impending marriage, his father's erratic behavior from his stroke, a child from his deceased wife's first marriage, and his mother's matchmaking, not to mention the women who stalk him and, finally, the woman with whom he finally falls in love again.

In spite of Tropper covering well worn territory, he never seems to let it go stale and his humor never fails: "My parents may behave like they were abandoned in Greenwich and raised by WASPs, but when it comes to preparing meals, we are once again the chosen people." OR "I would come and sit on the lawn beside her grave and make halting attempts at one-sided conversation, but I just couldn't make myself believe there was anyone listening, and even if I could, talking to the grave never made any sense to me. If there's an afterlife, and they can hear you, shouldn't they be able to hear you from anywhere? What's the theory here, that talking to the dead requires range, like a cell phone, and if you go too far the call gets dropped?"

Besides the humor, there is Tropper the astute observer of human nature and of the suburban scene, reminiscent of Updike and Cheever in some ways: "...moving out to New Radford [the suburban setting someplace in Westchester] had meant becoming friendly with a different sort of man than my younger, drunker, wilder single friends back in Manhattan.....[They] were all husbands and fathers either on the cusp or already descending into the tide pool of middle age. These men were all adrift in an alien landscape of mortgages and second mortgages, marriages and second marriages, children, child support, affairs, alimony, tuition, tutors, and an endless barrage of social functions. And all of their living had to be squeezed into those few hours on the weekends when they weren't working their asses off to pay for the whole mess. I'd always assumed that the people who lived in those fancy houses in the suburbs were financially better off then I was, and only once I'd joined them did I come to understand that it's all just a much more sophisticated and elaborate way of being broke."

Furthermore, Tropper always finds a way to tug at your heart, and although he treads familiar ground, I say, bring it on.

So, our roof odyssey has begun, the ripping and banging reminding me of a giant dental procedure, and while I've made some progress with my reading list, the stack of books grows. The pictures below track the first couple days progress on the roof. If only I could read that quickly!


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Jonathan Tropper

We are hunkered down in a hotel awaiting Hurricane Irene, our boat secured to the best of our ability. So we wait, with our flashlights (as power will inevitably be lost) and enough bread, and peanut butter and jelly to outlast the storm. The storm surge will be the key to our boat’s survival, a sickening feeling having to wait out the next two days and hoping we can return to find minimal damage when the storm finally passes. Meanwhile, it is time to complete an entry concerning Jonathan Tropper which I had started to write before Irene dictated the turmoil of preparing for the storm.

I’m becoming a Jonathan Tropper admirer, a clever and talented writer, with a unique voice, who may deserve to join the company of some of my favorite contemporary American novelists, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Franzen, Ever since John Updike died and as Philip Roth ages, I worry about their understudies, who might fill the shoes of authors dedicated to the craft of writing and the chronicling of American life and The Dream.

I had just finished Russell Bank’s The Reserve, a beautifully written novel but humorless and needed a “pick me up” so I returned to Tropper, having liked his Everything Changes, and was curious whether one of his earlier ones would measure up. I chose The Book of Joe with some hesitancy as it seemed to have all its cultural references to the 1980s, where part of the novel is set, the main characters being in high school and juxtaposed to the same ones today. This is my younger son’s generation, not mine. I’m closer to Updike and Roth’s age, no doubt one of the reasons their writing so resonates with me.

But Tropper deals with such universal truths they transcend generational provincialism, certainly the mark of a good writer. My high school years of the 1950s had the same raw pulsating teenage angst, sexual urgency, and social vulnerability, the very ones portrayed by Tropper at Bush Falls High, their Cougar basketball players revered, and everyone else in a subordinate role. Teenagers can be the most sadistic humans on the face of the earth, something Tropper well understands.

Events concerning my 50th high school reunion brought home the fact that the caste system had hardly changed. It was amazing to me that the long bridge of 50 years hardly mattered. It was back to the clickish high school years as if no time had passed at all.

And Tropper poignantly captures this feeling in The Book of Joe, using Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel experience as a very loose outline. Wolfe’s novel outraged the residents of Asheville and had Wolfe returned (actually, there is a fictionalized version of his return written by Asheville native and playwright Sandra Mason which we saw several years ago in Asheville), he, too, would have been vilified as is Tropper’s Joe Goffman who leaves the small fictional town of Bush Falls, CT, somewhere north of New Haven. He writes a novel about the town and it becomes a sensational best-seller, thanks in part to his agent. He tells all in thinly veiled fiction, even his most private sexual fantasies concerning his best friend’s mother. He finally returns 17 years later as his father has had a stroke and he now has to confront his family and former friends and high school hell raisers, the love of his life, and even the mother about whom he had fantasized.

Tropper writes terrifically believable dialogue and it is not surprising that he is also a screenwriter and a couple of his novels are in the process of being adapted for the screen. The Book of Joe is a fast read, poignantly tragicomic. Sometimes his writing reminds me of Joseph Heller’s special gift for ironic humor.

I was surprised by how engaged I was in the world of this thirty-something protagonist, a world more inhabited by my sons, but universal truths never change.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Endeavors

One of the benefits of living on our boat in the summer is being able to finally get to some postponed reading and catch up on local theatre either in Westport or NY and the last few weeks reminds me that so much of what we read or see in the theatre often serves as historical guideposts, snapshots of different periods of cultural change. I recently picked up John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I first read when it was published in the late 1970’s. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reread the novel other than I had forgotten much of it and always liked Irving’s quirky self-reflective story-telling, so much about the process of writing itself. I had forgotten how much the role of women’s rights plays in Garp, such a major issue in the 1970s. Irving playfully toys with the issue, satirizing it to a great degree, reminding me of my first business trip to Australia in the 1970’s when a Sydney taxi driver lectured me about the evils of women’s rights and, in particular, the role that Americans had in exporting those dangerous thoughts to Australia. I wonder whether Garp (or Irving) might have agreed with the accusation at the time.

Then a few weeks ago we saw Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Westport Country Playhouse, portraying two heterosexual couples vacationing at a home on Fire Island, in the middle of a gay community. It is a play that is constantly on an uneasy edge, the problems of the two couples acting out their aberrant behavior contrasted to the high-spirited, better adjusted gay community, off stage. But central to the play is the paranoia of how AIDS was thought to be transmitted at the time, symbolized by the couples’ dramatic fear of going into the pool (on stage) -- an obsession of twenty years ago when the play was written. Nonetheless, the play is still a compelling tragicomic drama and wonderfully staged at the beautifully restored Westport Country Playhouse.

A twenty year leap forward brings me to reading Jonathan Tropper’s Everything Changes. Here is a very contemporary novel by a thirty-something author about relationships between fathers and sons, and male female relationships. Tropper’s idiosyncratic characters (in particular, the protagonist’s father) at times reminds me a little of Richard Russo’s and Anne Tyler’s. Trooper’s writing can be very funny but sensitive at the same time. These are the two paragraphs that grab you and pull you into the novel:

Life, for the most part, inevitably becomes routine, the random confluence of timing and fortune that configures its components all but forgotten. But every so often, I catch a glimpse of my life out of the corner of my eye, and am rendered breathless by it. This is no accident. I made this happen. I had a plan.

I am about to fuck it all up in a spectacular fashion.

It was quite a contrast reading Anita Brookner’s Strangers, perhaps the most interior novel I’ve read in some time, most of it taking place in the mind of the 72 year old protagonist, a retired banker and confirmed bachelor, who feels he may be missing something not sharing his life with a woman. By chance he meets one of his old lovers (he hasn’t had many), now aged and frail, but one for whom he thinks he still has feelings. He also meets a woman on a flight to Venice, younger than he. Much of the novel is a debate (in his mind) of the advantages or disadvantages of being with one or the other or neither. Brookner’s writing is timeless, meticulously exacting, set mostly in London, but a London that seems to exist merely in some recent time. It is also about aging and finding meaning in life after a lifetime of work:

His reading now was confined to diaries, notebooks, memoirs, anything that contained a confessional element. He was in search of evidence of discomfiture, disappointment, rather than triumph over circumstances. Circumstances, he knew, would always overrule. Those great exemplars of the past, the kind he had always sought in classic novels, usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him. In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. Proof, if proof were needed, lay in the fact that his presence was no longer sought, that, deprived of the structure of the working day, he was at a loss, obliged to look for comfort in whatever he could devise for himself. His life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Finally, yesterday, we saw the NYC preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical, Follies. This is a show I failed to see when it opened in 1971 or any of the revivals and have been waiting, waiting for the opportunity. Sondheim is the last surviving composer of another era. Talk about historical markers. This is Sondheim’s tribute to various eras of Broadway’s past and it has some of his best known songs, too many to mention, including one that is perhaps my very favorite, Losing My Mind.

This new Broadway production, coming via the Kennedy Center, is spectacular, the kind of show no longer written for Broadway. It was Sondheim’s first musical as both composer and lyricist and every line, every word is delicious. The Broadway production includes some of Broadway’s luminaries, Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Elaine Page. Each brings the house down with some of Sondheim’s most iconic numbers. The juxtaposition of their ghosts from eras past is particularly evocative. Here is a two and half hour production which seems to pass in minutes, portraying innocent and happier times past, lost loves, regrets and heartbreak.