There are no two ways about it: Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You is a damn funny book. Tropper’s comedic éclat is undeniable: searing one-liners and scorching metaphors, particularly about slumping middle-age, are alone enough to recommend the book as a glancing and diverting summer read.
However, the repartee of the Foxman clan, grudgingly reassembled to sit a seven-day Shiva for their departed patriarch, will have to sustain you, for This is Where I Leave You feels startlingly familiar. The funeral reunion trope has finally worn out its usefulness; where it once catalyzed conflict and emotional confrontation, it now is almost completely devoid of interest or surprise. Regurgitated childhood conflict that ends with tepid reconciliation? Check. Meditations on the banality of grief? Check. Comedic and poignant remembrances of the deceased? Check. Family dysfunction morphed into sentimental quirk? Check.
But the funeral-as-domestic-healing chestnut is not the only contemporary cliché to fall into formation here: Judd Foxman, the newly and humiliatingly cuckolded protagonist, fills another modern archetype — the “fail male.” You know who I mean: the smart, trod-upon, flavorless, floundering, and ultimately innocuous 30-something bag of inertia that seems to haunt so many movies, TV shows and books about upper-middle class ennui. Judd Foxman may have two biological brothers (Paul, the fallen high school star, and Philip, the womanizing n’er-do-well) but his true siblings are Lewis Miner from Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land and Dwight Wilmderding from Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision. Here too he would be the middle brother, less bitingly nihilist than Lewis but more able to process emotion than Dwight.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the collision of these two cultural commonplaces force Tropper to enliven the novel with fits of delightfully pungent prose, much of it unleashed on the visitors to the funereal proceedings:
“Today’s Inappropriately Self-Absorbed Shiva Caller award goes to Arlene Blinder, an obese, sour-faced neighbor with dark patches of varicose veins running up her thick, mottled legs. That’s an unkind description, to be sure, but the view from down here in the chairs is not a pleasant one. All legs and crotch and nasal hair.”
These peregrinations away from the concerns of plot (Judd not only walks in on his wife cheating on him with his boss, but later discovers that she is pregnant with Judd’s child) are the real fun of This is Where I Leave You. It would be tempting to criticize Tropper for relying on ready-made situations and characters, but these stock characters and situations do allow him to improvise, to create out of the known something unexpected and pleasing. After all, you don’t question why someone would build a 1/16 scale replica of the Death Star out of Legos; you simply marvel at the will and ingenuity it took to do it at all.