Sunday, January 24, 2010

A book of love, family, high school, and basketball

I've said before that Jonathan Tropper is turning out to be my favorite contemporary author. His novels This Is Where I Leave You and How to Talk to a Widower were so hugely enjoyable that I was determined to read all his other books. His novels, while deeply heartfelt, are never cheesy. And they're laugh-out loud funny too. Having read The Book of Joe, one of Tropper's earlier novels, I think that I'm liking him more than John Irving and Tom Perrotta, two novelists who also focus on novels set in suburbia or small towns with familial themes.

The Joe is The Book of Joe is one Joe Goffman, a best-selling author who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his hometown, Bush Falls. Joe's novel becomes so expository about the inhabitants of Bush Falls that he ends up writing about not-so-flattering storylines about Bush Falls, his family, his high school friends, and virtually every human being living in his hometown. After 17 years of not visiting Bush Falls, he comes home after receiving a call from his sister-in-law that his father is in a coma. Needless to say, Joe becomes the most reviled man in Bush Falls. He gets into a fist fight with the local bully, who was also the bully during his high school years. Copies of his novel end up being thrown at his lawn by the local book club. People throw milkshakes at his face in restaurants.

The Book of Joe is a truly enjoyable novel. It's not as funny as Tropper's later novels, but, somehow, it succeeds in ways that This Is Where I Leave You and How to Talk to a Widower do not: you would be able to relate to at least one of the characters in The Book of Joe. There's the high school rebel who goes against hometown traditions, the high school best friend who turns out to be gay, the gossipy townsfolk, the adulterous family member, the celebrated basketball coach who spoils his team rotten but makes life hell for those who don't belong, the long-ago high school girlfriend who reignites your relationship when you visit home.

Tropper has written a novel about coming to terms with one's past. It's not your usual novel though wherein everything works out beautifully in the end. Joe is flawed like your everyday, well, Joe. Most of the time, he's clueless as to how to resolve deep family issues. He often lets things run their own course. If you've even felt like an outcast during high school, you'll love Joe. I wonder how Tropper comes up with these wonderful male protagonists in his novels. They're so messed up but oh so lovable.

Like the other Tropper novels, The Book of Joe initially feels just a comedic read, but they actually tackle profound issues. In this novel, Joe comes to terms with his being an outsider. He never makes it to the basketball team in a town that is very big in its basketball tradition. This is tough considering that his brother and his father were star basketball players. The Book of Joe is also about reconnection -- with friends and family. It's about confronting issues left unresolved even after so many years. Upon finishing it, you feel like buying a ticket and returning to your roots.

Read this book if:
  1. You felt like an outcast during high school.
  2. You still have a thing for your ex.
  3. You love reading about flawed but lovable characters.


SariJ said...

Peter, thank you for the review. I have been on my library's waiting list for This is where I Leave you for months now! I have a sinking feeling someone has not returned the book. I will make a mental note to look for any of Trapper's novels the next I go in. He sounds like my kind of author.

Anonymous said...

Oh great, you finally read this one, Peter. I'm glad you enjoyed this book as much as I have. I haven't read the other Tropper novels though but I will get my hands on them.

You are right: "His novels, while deeply heartfelt, are never cheesy." That and his wonderful humor are what make his novels really worth your reading time.

Peter S. said...

@SariJ: You should read Tropper. I just know you'll have a very enjoyable time.

@josbookshelf: Hello, fellow Tropper fan!

Anonymous said...

I've not read Tropper, but I do have This is Where I Leave You on my wish list. After reading your review I need to move it to the top!

wanderingcommuter said...

ill consider

Peter S. said...

@stacybuckeye: This Is Where I Leave You was one of my favorite reads last year!

@wanderingcommuter: You'll enjoy the book, I'm sure.

line of flight said...

when you say flawed, do you mean that in a technical respect to the writing or in respect to the attributes of the character substantively?

Patrick said...

This looks like something I'll really enjoy. If there ever was a quintessential outcast in highschool, it would definitely be me. I'll make sure to look out for this book next time. Thanks!

Peter S. said...

@line of flight: I guess I was referring to the character's attributes.

@Patrick: You'll find it in Powerbooks.