Showing posts with label Theodore Dreiser. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Theodore Dreiser. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

When She Was Good – and Roth is Great

The time had come to leave our boat and return to Florida.  We wanted to beat the weather for a safe drive.  Ann needed to see her surgeon because of an arthritic flare up in her knee and as much as we love being in Connecticut, seeing friends and family, living on our boat at our Club, there comes a time when the confines of the boat simply get to you and we long for the spaciousness of our home.  It’s the earliest that we’ve ever returned from our 15 years of bifurcated home/boat living, just in time for what we thought might become a Category 1 Hurricane, Erika, which thankfully disintegrated into remnants with only brief heavy rain and an eerie sunrise the day after.

Right before leaving the boat I picked up a novel I had brought (again, avoiding short stories for the time being), this time Philip Roth’s When She Was Good.  I’ve read a lot of Roth, and think his American Pastoral is one of the more important novels of my time.  I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, one often not discussed, but I was curious about it as to my knowledge Roth’s only novel with a woman (Lucy Nelson / Bassart) as the protagonist, particularly given the accusations over the years of Roth being a misogynist.  Furthermore, as Stanley Elkin’s brief blurb on the cover states, When She Was Good could be compared to Theodore Dreiser’s work ( I've read practically all his work in college and can count him among my favorite American writers), particularly in my mind his American Tragedy.

What mesmerized me is Roth’s lapidary characterization of Lucy.  This is a character, like the one in Dreiser’s other great novel, Sister Carrie, who you are unlikely to forget and it is Roth’s characterizations and dialogue which sets this novel apart. .  It reminded me of my own mother’s struggles in a man’s world.  There are two edges to this sword, though, Lucy as standing for and rationalizing what she considers “the truth” and then where her expectations stemming from” the truth” almost borders on mental illness.  Although she is described as a “ball buster” at one point, I think Roth is clearly rooting for Lucy in a world that does not reward her stalwart individualism.  Like Anita Shreve’s Olympia in Fortune’s Rocks, Lucy is a woman before her time. And like Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, this is a multigenerational novel, but with a darker view. 

Willard Carroll is from a dysfunctional family but as a young man he finds the American Dream waiting for him in “Liberty Center:”

     So at the sight of Liberty Center, its quiet beauty, its serene order, its gentle summery calm, all that had been held in check in him, all that tenderness of heart that had been for eighteen years his secret burden, even at times his shame, came streaming forth. If ever there was a place where life could be less bleak and harsh and cruel than the life he had known as a boy, if ever there was a place where a man did not have to live like a brute, where he did not have to be reminded at every turn that something in the world either did not like mankind, or did not even know of its existence, it was here. Liberty Center! Oh, sweet name! At least for him, for he was indeed free at last of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature.

     He found a room; then he found a job-he took an examination and scored high enough to become postal clerk; then he found a wife, a strong-minded and respectable girl from a proper family; and then he had a child; and then one day-the fulfillment, he discovered, of a very deep desire-he bought a house of his own, with a front porch and a backyard: downstairs a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen and a bedroom; upstairs two bedrooms more and the bath. A back bathroom was built downstairs in 1915, six years after the birth of his daughter, and following his promotion to assistant postmaster of the town.

That daughter, Myra, becomes the mother to Lucy, Willard’s grandchild.  But Myra married a man with a drinking problem and as a young girl Lucy calls the police as her mother was hit by her drunken husband, Whitey, blackening her eye.  The shame of having the police involved, and their name the subject of gossip, seems worse to Lucy’s grandparents, and even her mother, than the act itself.  It is from this action that the novel finds its themes and its energy, Lucy condemning her father, totally ostracizing him, and men in general, unless they tell the “truth” and abide by her expectations of how a man should behave, taking responsibility, doing the right thing.

These “blue threads” of shame and anger and expectations culminate in her savage condemnation of her malleable husband, Roy, with whom they now have a child, the fourth generation in the novel.  These very words could have been spoken by my own mother during the height of her own unhappy marriage to my father:

     "You worm! Don't you have any guts at all? Can't you stand on your own two feet, ever? You sponge! You leech! You weak, hopeless, spineless, coward! You'll never change- you don't even want to change! You don't even know what I mean by change! You stand there with your dumb mouth open! Because you have no backbone! None!" She grabbed the other cushion from behind her and heaved it toward his head. "Since the day we met!" ….
     She charged off the sofa. "And no courage!" she cried. "And no determination! And no will of your own! If I didn't tell you what to do, if I were to turn my back-if I didn't every single rotten day of this rotten life ... Oh, you're not a man, and you never will be, and you don't even care!" She was trying to hammer at his chest; first he pushed her hands down, then he protected himself with his forearms and elbows; then he just moved back, a step at a time.

This tirade is in front of family and in front of their child.  It is a novel that resonates with me for personal reasons.   I’ll leave it to the reader as to whether Lucy is a “ball buster” or just a person living in a world that has turned on her because “of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature” -- as experienced by her own grandfather before he fled to “Liberty Center.”

I’ll miss Roth (who has vowed to write no more) as I’ve missed Updike.  To hear from them no longer is like losing close friends.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Perhaps I am one of the last readers to discover Ian McEwan's Saturday, originally published some eight years ago.  In my defense, the book has been sitting in my reading queue for some time --  the Jonathan Cape paperback edition -- and I finally picked it up and said it was about time I turn to an English novelist and temporarily abandon my preference for American literature, having heard so much praise about McEwan's work. (As a disclaimer, I had not read his best known work, Atonement, before it was made into a movie -- which I also have not seen, hoping to read the book first, but Saturday was already on my shelves by then.)

As I am so late to the McEwan party, it doesn't make sense to try to write a formal book review of the book -- there are so many online.  But a brief summary might be useful.  The protagonist, Henry Perowne is a very successful neurosurgeon, married to Rosalind who is an attorney for a newspaper.  They have two children, both young adults, Daisy, a soon to be a published poet (like her maternal Grandfather) and Theo, a talented blues musician.  All the action of the novel (mostly told as interior monologue) takes place on a Saturday (actually into early Sunday morning).  It begins with Henry's early morning awakening, his watching the square over which his home looms, his thoughts about surgeries, past and future, and then finally noticing a plane, partially in flames, seemingly descending on London or perhaps trying to land at Heathrow.  This is post 9/11, that early morning scene setting the tone for the entire novel, a sense of impending doom.  Other things happen that day -- a mass demonstration protesting the, then, possible invasion of Iraq, a game of squash with Henry's highly competitive colleague, Strauss, for which he is delayed because of the demonstration and also because his Mercedes has had a run in with a BMW, occupied by a bunch of thugs, (the ring leader, Baxter, reminding me a little of a young Edward G. Robinson). Baxter is the catalyst for action later in the novel.  It certainly changes Henry's day, although the novel almost ends as it began, making a full circle. McEwan's writing is in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert and Henry James, with some of the darkness of Joseph Conrad. 

McEwan is as precise in his construction of the novel as is Perowne in the operating theatre, the place Perowne thinks of as "home" as much as the one on Fitzroy Square where he lives with his wife and son (Daisy has already gone, but as part of the plot, is coming home to London that Saturday as her book of poetry is about to be published). 

Interestingly, Henry is juxtaposed to his daughter and her Grandfather, both poets, and to a lesser degree, to his son, Theo, the musician.  He is a surgeon, one who believes in scientific inquiry, and although he appreciates classical music in the operating theatre, and jazz figures such as Bill Evans, Henry is first and foremost a man of science. 

I am going to quote several passages from the novel as they give not only a sense of McEwan's exceptional writing style, but they reveal some of the major themes as well.  I mentioned that the novel unfolds in the shadow of 9/11, beginning with a possible airliner crash, perhaps an accident, or a terrorist act.  McEwan writes about Henry's feelings on air travel: Like most passengers, outwardly subdued by the monotony of air travel, he often lets his thoughts range across the possibilities while sitting, strapped down and docile, in front of a packaged meal. Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it's minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm....Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there's failure....[t]he market could plunge.

And what about a deity's role in all of this? And if there are to be deaths, the very god who ordained them will soon be funereally petitioned for comfort. Perowne regards this as a matter for wonder, a human complication beyond the reach of morals. From it there spring, alongside the unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds, beautiful cathedrals, mosques, cantatas, poetry. Even the denial of God, he was once amazed and indignant to hear a priest argue, is a spiritual exercise, a form of prayer: it's not easy to escape from the clutches of the believers.

He is constantly debating his daughter and his father in law about the role of literature and poetry in the real world, particularly the literary supernatural that seems to perpetually occupy the best selling lists.  His daughter has given him a "reading list" of novels, but Henry protests: A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain -- consciousness, no less.  It isn't an article of faith with him, he knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs.  If that's worthy of awe, it also deserves curiosity; the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge.  This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.

'No more magic midget drummers,' he pleaded with her by post, after setting out his tirade. 'Please, no more ghosts, angels, satins or metamorphoses. When anything can happen, nothing much matters. It's all kitsch to me.'

'You ninny,' she reproved him on a postcard, 'you Gradgrind. It's literature, not physics!'  They had never conducted one of their frequent arguments by post before. He wrote back: 'Tell that to your Flaubert and Tolstoy. Not a single winged human between them!'

Then there are times McEwan seems to be influenced by social Darwinism reminding me a little of Theodore Dreiser.  Here, Perowne is negotiating his car through the left over rubbish from the march, and he sees a street sweeper and their eyes briefly meet: The whites of the sweeper's eyes are fringed with egg-yellow shading to red along the lids. For a vertiginous moment Henry feels himself bound to the other man, as though on a seesaw with him, pinned to an axis that could tip them into each other's life.....How restful it must once have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity - a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one's own condition. Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view - having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. It's not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist.

His eye for the common street sweeper is later turned to the fishmonger and McEwan weaves a philosophical observation into his observation: The fishmonger is a polite, studious man who treats his customers as members of an exclusive branch of the landed gentry. He wraps each species of fish in several pages of a newspaper. This is the kind of question Henry liked to put to himself when he was a schoolboy: what are the chances of this particular fish, from that shoal, off that continental shelf ending up in the pages, no, on this page of this copy of the Daily Mirror? Something just short of infinity to one. Similarly, the grains of sand on a beach, arranged just so. The random ordering of the world, the unimaginable odds against any particular condition, still please him.

And then, he turns to humanity in general.  Henry is now stuck in traffic, the late aftermath of the march.  Does he become irate, frustrated by the traffic?  No, he is transported to a breathtaking view from a historical perspective: Dense traffic is heading into the city for Saturday night pleasures just as the first wave of coaches is bringing the marchers out.  During the long crawl towards the lights at Gypsy Corner, he lowers his window to taste the scene in full - the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street light bleaching colour from the bodywork, the jaunty thud of entertainment systems, and red taillights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it. He tries to see it, or feel it, in historical terms, this moment in the last decades of the petroleum age, when a nineteenth-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty-first; when the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modem city makes for a sight that no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people! Rivers of light! He wants to make himself see it as Newton might, or his contemporaries, Boyle, Hooke, Wren, Willis - those clever, curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world's science. Surely, they would be awed. Mentally, he shows it off to them: this is what we've done, this is commonplace in our time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if he could only see it through their eyes.

Back in the operating theatre (now late Saturday night), Henry's awe of science, the brain he is operating on, and what does consciousness mean, all converge: He's looking down at a portion of Baxter's brain. He can easily convince himself that it's familiar territory, a kind of homeland, with its low hills and enfolded valleys of the sulci, each with a name and imputed function, as known to him as his own house. Just to the left of the mid-line, running laterally away out of sight under the bone, is the motor strip. Behind it, running parallel, is the sensory strip. So easy to damage, with such terrible, lifelong consequences. How much time he has spent making routes to avoid these areas, like bad neighbourhoods in an American city. And this familiarity numbs him daily to the extent of his ignorance, and of the general ignorance. For all the recent advances, it's still not known how this well-protected one kilogram or so of cells actually encodes information, how it holds experiences, memories, dreams and intentions. He doesn't doubt that in years to come, the coding mechanism will be known, though it might not be in his lifetime. Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre.  Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?

One of my favorite, very poignant passages, probably because it touches me very directly, my mother-in-law, uncle, and now our cousin, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, involves Henry's mother, Lily, who he visits (same Saturday!) at the home she is being cared for -- with advance stages of that dreaded disease.  Henry remembers when they had to take her from her home, the very one he grew up in, as she could no longer care for herself and in fact was failing to recognize family members.  He enlists the help of his wife and his children: The family packed up clothes and kitchenware and unwanted ornaments for the charity shops - Henry never realised before how these places lived off the dead. Everything else they stuffed into bin liners and put out for the rubbish collection. They worked in silence, like looters - having the radio on wasn't appropriate. It took a day to dismantle Lily's existence.

They were striking the set of a play, a humble, one-handed domestic drama, without permission from the cast. They started in what she called her sewing room - his old room. She was never coming back, she no longer knew what knitting was, but wrapping up her scores of needles, her thousand patterns, a baby's half-finished yellow shawl, to give them all away to strangers was to banish her from the living. They worked quickly, almost in a frenzy. She's not dead, Henry kept telling himself. But her life, all lives, seemed tenuous when he saw how quickly, with what ease, all the trappings, all the fine details of a lifetime could be packed and scattered, or junked. Objects became junk as soon as they were separated from their owner and their pasts - without her, her old tea cosy was repellent, with its faded farmhouse motif and pale brown stains on cheap fabric, and stuffing that was pathetically thin. As the shelves and drawers emptied, and the boxes and bags filled, he saw that no one owned anything really. It's all rented, or borrowed. Our possessions will outlast us, we'll desert them in the end.

I don't think I've given away any significant plot details that will ruin one's reading of this novel of suspense.  I mentioned earlier that the novel remains in the shadow of 9/11 and it circles back to the beginning at the end.  Henry now thinks what the future might bring, by thinking of what the past was like --as the future might have been seen through the eyes of a physician such as himself, one hundred years ago.  It is a powerful message brilliantly expressed, one of foreboding by McEwan: London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. It might resemble the Paddington crash - twisted rails, buckled, upraised commuter coaches, stretchers handed out through broken windows, the hospital's Emergency Plan in action. Berlin, Paris, Lisbon. The authorities agree, an attack's inevitable. He lives in different times - because the news-papers say so doesn't mean it isn't true. But from the top of his day, this is a future that's harder to read, a horizon indistinct with possibilities. A hundred years ago, a middle-aged doctor standing at this window in his silk dressing gown, less than two hours before a winter's dawn, might have pondered the new century's future. February 1903. You might envy this Edwardian gent all he didn't yet know. If he had young boys, he could lose them within a dozen years, at the Somme. And what was their body count, Hitler, Stalin, Mao? Fifty million, a hundred? If you described the hell that lay ahead, if you warned him, the good doctor - an affable product of prosperity and decades of peace - would not believe you. Beware the utopianists, zealous men certain of the path to the ideal social order. Here they are again, totalitarians in different form, still scattered and weak, but growing, and angry, and thirsty for another mass killing. A hundred years to resolve. But this may be an indulgence, an idle overblown fantasy, a night-thought about a passing disturbance that time and good sense will settle and rearrange.

My blog entry immediately before this one made note that Saturdays will never be the same without my favorite financial writer who recently passed, Alan Abelson Inevitably I will think of this novel on some future Saturdays as well, hoping that it is not in the context of a "mass killing," but that specter of terrorism hangs heavily.  In his own post 9/11 novel, The Terrorist, John Updike struggled to reconcile the fundamentalist Muslim view of American society and what the future might hold.  Both novels leave one with the ambiguities of an unknown resolution. Both are novels of peerless writing.

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.