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.