Jonathan Tropper offers front row seats to a family meltdown. He tells Sara Eckel why he decided to insert his main character in a reactor
Judd Foxman, the protagonist of Jonathan Tropper’s fifth novel, is having a very bad week. He is in the process of getting a painful divorce after catching his wife in bed with his boss, a radio shock jock. Now unemployed and living in a basement apartment, Judd learns that his father has passed away and he will be spending the next week with his gloriously dysfunctional family, as per dad’s dying wish. Oh, and his soon-to-be-ex-wife just told him she’s pregnant.
If it sounds like Tropper has stacked the deck against the poor narrator of This Is Where I Leave You, he has. ‘It’s like inserting your character in a reactor,’ Tropper says. ‘You’re putting him in a house with his whole original nuclear family, all these angry and estranged siblings, and there is nothing to do but bounce off each other. It was guaranteed to be an explosive week.’
The heightened tension allows for Tropper to use a much more condensed time frame – one week – than he did in his four previous novels, which include How To Talk To A Widower, Everything Changes and The Book Of Joe. ‘I don’t tend to outline – my other books go where they go – so I loved forcing myself to fit an entire novel into a seven-day structure,’ he says. Of course, this also created challenges, like ensuring that all the action could reasonably take place in such a tight time frame. It also gives the book a different texture than his earlier works, because there isn’t enough time to work through the conflicts. ‘You can’t go all the way toward resolution,’ he says. ‘It’s a snapshot of this family with all their issues.’
And, boy, are there issues. There is the over-sharing mother who, when Judd was 12, offered him some particularly embarrassing tips at the dinner table. And there are Judd’s siblings: an irresponsible, caddish baby brother; a sarcastic sister trudging through her marriage to an investment banker who speaks only to his Bluetooth; and a deeply resentful older brother who stayed in town to run the family business.
Sounds like a fun gang, right? Actually, it is. Although the book is darker than Tropper’s previous novels, it maintains his comic and fairly lighthearted tone. Sincerity occasionally breaks through, as when the three brothers are sharing a sneaky cigarette away from everyone else and confess that they love their father and each other. A moment later, the smoke alarm erupts (Tropper has never been one to linger in Hallmark sentiment).
‘Whether I’m telling you something terribly tragic or not, it’s my job to tell it in a way that engages the reader,’ Tropper says. ‘I’m not making light of the situation, but I am writing in a way that can be sad and funny at the same time. Because even if you write a very well-rendered story of people grieving and a man ending his marriage, if it isn’t told with some form of humour, what’s really gained?’
Tropper, who lives in Westchester, a suburb just outside New York City, with his wife and three children, says the fact that he writes about men coping with adult growing pains and suburban angst often elicits assumptions that his novels are autobiographical. ‘It’s an occupational hazard of being a writer,’ he says, but shrugs it off: ‘You just can’t let that bother you – in the same way that if you are writing a sensual scene, you can’t think, Oh God, my parents are going to read this. The minute you start editing yourself for things like that, you compromise the work.’
But Tropper admits that of course his life experiences influence his work, and notes that his characters tend to lag a few years behind him in age – for example, Tropper is 39; Judd, 34. He recently realised, however, that for all his fascination with family, he has yet to write a book about a father. ‘I suspect that it might be because my oldest son is 10,’ he says. ‘I’m not far enough away from having become a parent to really look at it as deeply as I need to. Whereas I’ve been a screw-up for a really long time.’ This Is Where I Leave You is published by Dutton. Available from bookstores or online at www.amazon.co.uk, BD4.2.