When I first read a book by Jonathan Tropper (This is Where I Leave You), I enjoyed it so much that I had to make a conscious effort not to race out and read everything he’d written in one go. Instead, I bought all of his books and have stretched out the reading joy, allowing myself one every few months. A weird kind of torture, yes, but necessary so that I don’t overload (I had an Elinor Lipman binge once and still regret it). So my pre-Christmas Tropper was The Book of Joe.
The Book of Joe is about a thirty-something guy, Joe Goffman, who writes a savage bestselling novel about his hometown, Bush Falls. After fifteen years of absence, he returns to Bush Falls and needless to say there’s no fanfare. Instead, Joe has to face some painful memories and repair broken relationships.
Tropper has the exceptional ability to make you laugh-out-loud and sob, all within a page – The Book of Joe is no exception. The laughs come from the witty dialogue (in this book mostly courtesy of smart-arse Joe and his nephew Jared) and sharp observations –
“Connecticut mothers, for the most part, weren’t big on cleavage when they grocery shopped….Cleavage, like the good china, was reserved for special occasions, and even then was displayed sparingly.”
“The day is a run-on Henry James sentence that makes no sense, punctuated by small talk, bathroom breaks and trips to the temperamental coffee machine down the hall.”
Scattered throughout the book are some genuine words to live by and Tropper’s ability to switch gears from wise-cracking to thoughtful is what I really admire about his style.
“Everyone always wants to know how you can tell when it’s true love, and the answer is this: when the pain doesn’t fade and the scars don’t heal, and it’s too damned late.”
and one that I will have to remember to tell my own sons when the time comes (because it’s so true!) –
“Girls divide guys into friends and potential boyfriends. You have to get yourself into the right category from the get-go.”
There’s also a particularly poignant moment that I won’t describe in detail for fear of a spoiler but it does include this –
“We make mistakes. They don’t make us. If they did, we’d all be royally fucked, especially a couple of assholes like us.”
Tropper’s female characters generally aren’t as pithy as the males (that’s not a criticism, just an observation). The Book of Joe has an ace ‘support cast’, notably the characters of Wayne (Joe’s best friend), Owen (his agent) and Lucy (a friend’s mother). Tropper doesn’t build his characters with straightforward descriptions. Instead, expect brief references to events, snippets of dialogue and, in this case, Joe’s thoughts on the people around him. This layering technique works beautifully with the present/past format of The Book of Joe and by the end, you feel as if you’re right there in Bush Falls with them.
To finish, I couldn’t resist this bit about eighties music –
“I come from the eighties, a neon, hair-sprayed decade from which very little music made it out alive. When was the last time you heard Men at Work or Thompson Twins on a mainstream radio station? The music from my youth has aged poorly and is now like a joke out of context. You had to be there.”
Read this book with a good-sized bowl of salted-caramel ice cream – savour every mouthful like you’ll savour every word.
4/5 (or in other words, wrapping the Christmas presents will have to wait)