Tag Archives: “The Book of Joe”

HOW TO TALK TO A WIDOWER by Jonathan Tropper

Vacation Read #1 was How to Talk to a Widower, by Jonathan Tropper. I’d been looking forward to reading another Jonathan Tropper book ever since I read The Book of Joe last year (reviewed here). Tropper is a very funny and entertaining writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Joe, the story of a novelist who returns to his hometown to face his past and the people he skewered in his successful novel.

Tropper Like The Book of Joe, How to Talk to a Widower is a poignant, sad book with a lot of dark humor thrown in. Doug Parker is a widower in his early 30s who lost his wife Hailey of two years in a plane crash. He lives in the NY suburbs, where he had moved in with his wife and stepson, and spends his days mourning Hailey, drinking, and feeling sorry for himself. How to Talk to a Widower opens with his sister’s approaching wedding, allowing Tropper to introduce Doug’s dysfunctional but endearing family. In the book, Doug seeks solace in the arms of a married neighbor, debates whether he should assume custody of his stepson Russ, starts dating again, and generally begins to come to terms with his loss.

The best part of the book is Tropper’s depiction of Doug’s grief. Those passages were the most powerful. Doug is adept at expressing, in the simplest terms, how he is so crippled by the loss of Hailey and the ways it affects every part of his life, from what time he goes grocery shopping to why he cannot pursue an offer to develop his weekly column into a novel. Reading this book, I was reminded more than a few times of Lolly Winston’s Good Grief (reviewed here) – How to Talk to a Widower is the less-kind, less-gentle male chronicle of young widowerhood, compared to Winston’s story of a young widow a year after she loses her husband.  Also, Tropper is wickedly funny, and while it may be true that the two protagonists I’ve read of his so far are essentially the same person, I like that person and enjoy reading about him.

Here’s a passage I enjoyed.  Doug and Russ are going grocery shopping together after deciding that Russ will move in with him (sorry for the small spoiler):

Russ and I shop for groceries at the Super Stop and shop. We buy bottles of soda, bags of chips, boxes of pasta, jars of tomato sauce, large quantities of white bread, sandwich spreads, and frozen food, Everything we buy has the maximum amount of chemicals and requires the minimum amount of preparation to eat. We do not compare brands, do not look for circulars and coupons, because we are slated to be millionaires and price is no object. We do not consider nutritional factors, because we are young and slim and sad and beautiful, we shine in our grief, and we will eat what we want, when we want, with utter impunity. We tear through the market like young royalty, like elite fighter pilots, grabbing anything that catches our fancy, intoxicated by the infinite possibilities of this new, alternative family we’ve become. We have been hammered by bad fortune, cut off at the knees, and yet, here we are, rising above it all, floating brilliantly among these suburban housewives who can’t help but flash us admiring glances as they fill their carts with fresh vegetables and raw chickens. We are a sitcom family, a Disney movie, a bold new social experiment.


One quibble with Tropper: the women in his book  – especially the ones that the main characters fall in love with – are always sad and damaged. Off the bat – Carly (Joe), Hailey (Widower), and Brooke (Widower) were each hurt – physically or emotionally or both – by men, and it is in this condition that the Tropper’s main characters find and fall in love with them. What’s up with that, Jonathan Tropper? Why do your men need to be saviors? Why are “undamaged” women unappealing?

Overall, I liked The Book of Joe better than How To Talk To A Widower, and as always with Jonathan Tropper, I could stand fewer physical altercations (too many fistfights), but I’m a Tropper fan and am glad I read this one. I definitely recommend it.

THE BOOK OF JOE by Jonathan Tropper

One of the themes I have discussed often in this blog is how authors can draw on their own experiences and relationships for their books without alienating the people in their lives that appear in their books.

The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper (2004), takes this issue head-on.  The protagonist, Joe Goffman, grew up in a small Connecticut town called Bush Falls. After graduating from high school in 1986, he moved away and, in his twenties, wrote a thinly veiled – and extremely critical – novel about Bush Falls.  While Goffman exposed the claustrophobia, hypocrisy and dysfunction of both his family and his hometown, he also took some liberties in the book, giving, for example, the revered high school basketball coach homosexual tendencies verging on pedophilia.

Fast forward seventeen years, and Joe’s father has had a stroke and is on his deathbed. Rich from the success of the book, Joe returns from Manhattan to Bush Falls and unsurprisingly, meets with rage, hatred and physical aggression from his former classmates and neighbors.  The Book of Joe takes place over the two weeks following Joe’s return to Bush Falls.

After flipping through this book briefly in the bookstore, I expected it to be funny, with some wry commentary on high school from someone whose wisdom and maturity had allowed him to forgive and move on.  I wasn’t quite right. Tropper is an extremely funny writer – no question. But this book is darker and sadder than I expected.  Each of the characters is damaged somehow, physically or emotionally or both, and life in Bush Falls (where many of Joe’s classmates inexplicably still live) is as stifling and narrow as ever.  During the two weeks of the story, Joe’s interactions with the key players unearth old grudges, fights and conflicts, and while they are mostly resolved by the end to varying degrees of satisfaction, it’s a bumpy road.

That said, I highly recommend The Book of Joe. Tropper is a very good writer – he’s quite eloquent and has a keen eye for detail. Here’s a sample passage:

I thought that I’d recalled Bush Falls rather well when I wrote the book, but as I drive through the town for the first time in seventeen years, I realize that all I’ve had are superficial recollections, cardboard stand-ins for real memories that are only now finally emerging. The corporeal experience of returning is the trigger to long-dormant memories, and as I gaze around my hometown, I’m stunned by the renewed clarity of what I’d buried in my self-conscious. Memories that should have long since crumbled to dust from seventeen years of attrition turn out to have been hermetically sealed and perfectly preserved, now summed up as if by posthypnotic suggestion. There is a sense of violation in learning that, unbeknownst to me, my mind has maintained such a strong connection with the town, as if my brain’s been sneaking around behind my back.

And, naturally, I enjoyed this description of coming of age in the 80s:

1986 was a fine time to be a teenager in love. Unemployment was down, the stock market was up, and people were generally optimistic.  Things were so peaceful, we had to send Rambo back to Vietnam to look for action. . . .  We had no Internet or grunge bands to dilute our innocence with irony, no glorified slackers or independent films to make darkness appealing. Happiness was still considered socially acceptable.

There’s a bit more physical violence in this book than I would have preferred (bar fights, that type of thing), and at times the characters are just a little too clever, too conversationally adept, to be convincing, but those are small quibbles with an otherwise very rewarding read.

USA Today (full review here) says, “What finally elevates The Book of Joe is that it’s not simply the story of a writer going through a bout of navel-gazing. It’s about memory and the clash between the way we remember things and the way they really were.”

January magazine (first I heard of it too) wrote: “Jonathan Tropper does a first-rate job of conveying the wonder, excitement and heartache that inhabit our high school years, as well as the denial and grudges we harbor in adulthood and the consequences that occur when they collide.”

Next on my Tropper list: How to Talk to a Widower.