New York Times bestseller A Plume Book 2010 339 pages
This novel had me hooked and in stitches from page one. How rare is that? The novel opens by describing the personality of the narrator’s family and how they deal with life. I could immediately relate to the crass, harsh, hilarious and real way the Foxman family does family. The patriarch has died which becomes a framing device for the story. While Dad was sick he requested the family come together and sit Shiva for seven whole days. For years they have actively avoided bonding family time and none of the four grown children are looking forward to all this togetherness. Each sibling has a lot going on including spouses and assorted lovers. We get to peek inside each life, but we are always in the head of Judd, the narrator, whose life is completely upside down. Even though the situations are not obviously funny, Tropper gives Judd such a twisted sense of humor that somehow you laugh even when you are not supposed to. On the other hand, Tropper can be very nostalgic and heart-felt when discussing family, sometimes even waxing poetic. The story is told in the present tense and is counted by the time on the clock so that, in effect, you are also sitting Shiva with the Foxmans. This novel is full of belly-laughs that will make you want to read out loud to your friends. What follows are my favorite bits (I like to call “the best bits”) and chapter summaries.
1 “If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised” (2).
“Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can” (3).
[Story being told by Judd who has an older sister (Wendy), older brother (Paul) and younger brother, Phillip. Their dad has finally died after a long battle with stomach cancer. They will gather for the funeral. Judd has been having a tough time even aside from his father’s death.]
2 “…trying to look like someone trying not to look bored” (10).
“You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone” (11).
[Judd and Jen are divorcing. They had met in college. Jen is sleeping with Judd’s boss and is pregnant. Judd and Jen were pregnant once. Still birth. You can tell Judd still loves her and is very hurt.]
3 “Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us” (16-17).
[Margin note: No romanticizing here! Thank you for telling it like it is.]
“Naked men shouldn’t run” (24).
[Judd goes into gross, horrible and hilarious detail about the day he caught his wife and boss together in HIS bed. Now he lives in a cheap basement room and is somehow still spiraling downward.]
4 “…even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth” (33).
5 [After the funeral the extended family gather around the dinner table. Chaos ensues.]
6 [Judd recalling the first time he met Jen.]
7 “And as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (63).
[In high school Judd and Alice lost their virginity to each other. Alice later married Paul and the brothers have had a rocky relationship ever since.]
8 [Judd escapes shiva for a short drive to pick Horry up from the store and take him home. Judd learns an old flame also works at the store. His interest is peaked.]
9 [First day of shiva finally ends. Judd listens to voicemails from pregnant Jen who wants to hurry along divorce proceedings.]
10 “There is nothing more pathetically optimistic than the morning erection. I am depressed, unemployed, unloved, basement-dwelling, and bereaved, but there it is, every morning like clockwork, rising up to greet the day, poking out of my fly cocksure and conspicuously useless. And every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options” (84).
[Judd’s relationship with his mother.]
11 [All the kids are giving Mom a “Dad” story but Judd can’t recall a time he had his dad’s undivided attention.]
12 [Mr. Applebaum is already scoping out the widow.]
13 [Judd is lonely and every woman in society has his attention.]
14 [Judd re-lives quitting his job when Wade was his manager.]
15 [Tracy is now competing with old school chums of Phillip’s. Judd puts in a good word for Horry’s independence.]
16 [Judd sees Penny who he had a thing with in college. They made a pact to marry by age 40 if they were both still single. Horry cannot live alone even though he desires independence.]
17 [Horry brought back a memory of a dog attack that Judd and Paul experienced as kids. Now Judd is dreaming about it.]
18 [Paul and Phillip finally go to blows and Jen appears out of nowhere. Will Phillip join the family business? Will Paul let him?]
19 [Judd sums up what sex is like after you’ve been married for years.]
20 “‘Please,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’
“It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd” (137).
[Jen comes to tell Judd that she is carrying HIS baby!]
21 [Judd recalling when he and Jen learned they had lost their first (and only) child. It led to the demise of their marriage.]
22 [Mom gives her input on her kids’ relationships then Paul decks Phillip to return the favor from the day before. Phillip drops the bomb about Jen being pregnant.]
23 [Judd visits Penny and they have a short skate holding hands. Phillip is cheating on Tracy. Dad’s death is starting to sink in.]
25 [Horry still has a thing for Wendy. Does she still think of him too?]
26 [Paul and his wife are trying to conceive and everyone knows it.]
27 [After a make out session with Penny in the pool, Judd calls Jen. Wade answers and doesn’t appreciate this late night call.]
28 [The crazy party in high school where Alice and Judd were going to make out but instead Judd gets kicked in the balls. Paul comes back to revenge his little brother, but Paul ends up being attacked by a guard dog owned by Judd’s attacker. The two brothers’ relationship has never been the same.]
29 “You can sit up here, feeling above it all while knowing you’re not, coming to the lonely conclusion that the only thing you can ever really know about anyone is that you don’t know anything about them at all” (188).
[Judd is accidentally electrocuted which brings forward a dad memory. He mourns with his mother.]
30 [The brothers sneak off during church service to smoke dad’s last joint. They accidentally set off the fire alarm.]
31 “Back when I lived with Jen, I had some friends. In the aftermath of our separation, Allan and Mike had met me for drinks and we’d all raised our glasses in agreement that Jen was a cheating bitch and I was the good guy here. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was actually my good-bye party. Jen would retain custody of our friends and I’d be wordlessly discarded. A few weeks later, as I circled the multiplex parking lot, I saw Allan and Mike with their wives, leaving the theater along with Jen and Wade, all walking in standard formation, talking and laughing in the cinematic afterglow, like it had always been just so. I tried to tell myself it was simply a chance encounter, but it was clear from their body language that they were all together, and probably not for the first time. It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat” (214-215).
[Jen wants to talk but Judd is having none of it. He makes mischief in his old house when no one is there. He is practically raped by his sister-in-law Alice who has been trying for 2 years to get pregnant with Paul. Later, Judd goes on a date with Penny and for the second time says nothing about Jen being pregnant.]
32 [Judd dreams a sweet dream of his father who heals him.]
33 [Wendy and Judd talk about life. Why did Linda (Mom’s lifelong friend) stay the night?]
34 [Old high school friends come to visit during shiva. Their lives have all turned out pretty mediocre.]
35 [Visiting high school friends prompt an impromptu batting round in the side yard where Paul hurts his ravaged shoulder and Boner gets hit in the face with a ball. Have mother and Linda been lovers for years?]
36 [Judd lets all the older women know he DOES NOT want to be set up with their daughters.]
37 “She is waiting in front of her building when we pull up, looking edible in a T-shirt, short shorts, and tennis shoes. She could be nineteen. She could be my girlfriend. We could be going out to the amusement park, where we’d kiss on the lines, hold hands on the rides, and share cotton candy. I’d win her one of those giant stuffed animals and we’d carry it around the park with us like a badge of honor. Afterward it would take up permanent residence on her pink bedspread, where she’s lie across ti while we spoke for hours on the phone” (252).
“A kid with a name tag and a digital camera asks us to pose for a picture with the cheesy plaster palace behind us. There are countless pictures of my family at various ages in just this spot. If we pulled them out of all the messy albums in the living room bookcases, you could probably track the steady growth of our family, like annual pencil marks on the wall to show how tall you’ve grown. Dad isn’t in any of the Wonderland pictures, because he was always the one taking them, with this old Yashica he’d bought when he first got married, because why the hell would he pay for a picture he could take better himself? As a matter of fact, you’d have to turn a lot of pages to find Dad in any of our albums. The inadvertent result of being the default photographer is that he was relegated to the role of a bit player in the actual recorded history of our family. There are entire years of our lives where he doesn’t appear at all” (253).
“Sometimes, contentment is a matter of will. You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you’ve lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it” (255).
[The last date with Penny.]
38 [Judd is having a moment with Jen at the hospital listening to their baby’s heartbeat when Wade arrives. He ends up arguing with both Judd and Phillip who ends up decking him. A bit of vandalism meets Wade’s car before the brothers exit the parking lot.]
39 [All the brothers are feeling quite beat up by their wives. They need a night off.]
40 “He sinks his teeth into every word, and they come out chewed” (276).
[The brothers go out but it was not the bonding experience they had imagined.]
41 “Down in the basement, I wash some of Boner’s foam spray off the mirror to better study my reflection. My bottom lip is split and swollen, my eyes bleary, my cheeks pale and puffy. I look like a corpse pulled from the river a week after the suicide. It’s time for a gut check. I mean that literally. I pull off my shirt, which is caked with just enough blood and vomit to represent a much wilder night than the one I’ve had, and step back to study my torso. The overall effect does not match the image I cling to in my head. My belly is not yet what you’d call a gut, but you can see where the inevitable expansion will happen. I have no real chest to speak of; you’d miss it altogether if it weren’t for the two hairless nipples pressed on like decals. Broader shoulders would create the illusion of fitness, but I am sorely lacking in that department as well. The overall impression is lean but soft, and getting softer. This is the package, ladies. Come and get it.
“I lie down on the floor to do some sit-ups and promptly fall asleep” (285-5).
[Drunk Judd gets a punch and an apology from Wade who is leaving Jen. He just can’t do the step-father thing.]
42 [Another dream of Dad who is cradling Judd’s future baby.]
43 “The whites of his eyes are vaguely pink, like something ran in the wash” (295).
[Tracy knows it’s the end of the line with Phillip. Horry lays girls who don’t truly know him. Alice apologizes for raping Judd. Lina leaves after a heated argument.]
44 [Mom comes out of the closet.]
45 [The kids discuss their mom being bisexual.]
46 [Shiva is over. Judd drives home to a long talk with Jen. He is ready to work on forgiveness.]
47 [Mom and Linda get to tell their story. Mom was the one bringing them all together…not dad’s dying wish.]
48 [All the kids prepare to return to the lives.]
49 [Judd goes to apologize and say good-bye to Penny.]
50 [I never summarize the last chapter. That is a prompt to go read the book yourself!]