Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012: Maximum Shelf: One Last Thing Before I Go


Dutton Books: One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

Dutton: One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

Dutton Books: One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

Dutton Books: One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper

One Last Thing Before I Go

by Jonathan Tropper

Jonathan Tropper--who has garnered well-deserved praise for novels that illuminate the pathos and comedy of modern family life--scores again with One Last Thing Before I Go, a sharp and very funny study in dysfunctionality and middle-age crisis in a time of economic chaos and collapsing hope. The protagonist here is Silver, an unhappily divorced man in his 40s with a Princeton-bound daughter who resents him and a life that is going nowhere slowly. Once a drummer in a one-hit-wonder band that disintegrated ("Rest in Pieces," their chart-topper, was written by Silver), he now gets by on diminishing royalties and playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. Silver readily admits that he's been a lousy husband and father, and feels he's gotten what he deserves--days of hanging by the pool of a rundown efficiency hotel with his equally loser buddies, each with their own tales of lost wives, children and dreams. He can't even bring himself to dislike his ex-wife Denise's fiancé, Rich, a relentlessly decent surgeon. "The only thing worse than not having your dream come true," Silver meditates at one point, "is having it come true for a little while."

Then, just as he's turning his self-pity up to eleven, his daughter, Casey, shows up and drops a bombshell: she's pregnant. The reader eventually learns more about Casey than Silver does at this point--for example, that she's only had sex once, with a neighbor boy she's known since childhood, and that she's terrified. Tropper flits between Casey's and Silver's points of view, allowing us to watch as Casey sets him up and he takes the bait. Tropper's insights into human nature are on full display here. Casey fumes inwardly that her father's response to any crisis is to offer ice cream. Sure enough, as soon Casey shares her secret, Silver suggests they go get a cone. Eager to please her, Silver steps up to the plate--sort of. He won't do the one thing that Casey wants most, which is to make the decision for her, but he offers his support and to pay for an abortion. At one point in their back-and-forth, Silver blacks out, only to wake up in a hospital bed with Rich standing over him telling him that he will die if he doesn't have an operation immediately to repair an aortic tear. The decision seems to be a simple one, but the narrative takes an unusual turn when Silver refuses the surgery and leaves the hospital.

Silver's reason to forgo the surgery is unclear, but it's all of a piece with his general inability to commit to anything. His passive-aggressive resistance also drives the rest of the narrative as family and friends close in on him, trying to make him change his mind. Casey reminds him that it would be particularly selfish of him to leave her life now that he's finally reentered it; his father, a rabbi, takes him to a variety of life events (a funeral, bar mitzvah and a bris) so that he can understand the concept of family and community bonds, and his formerly apathetic friends begin to get irritated at his lack of interest in saving his own life.

As his illness progresses, Silver experiences a series of mini-strokes that cause him to become more philosophical, direct and, appropriately for someone facing death, to question the nature and existence of God. It also leads him to speak the (largely inappropriate and often hilarious) thoughts in his head without realizing it until he sees the shocked looks on the faces around him. It's a device expertly used by Tropper to examine the minutiae of family relationships in extremis. Silver's new personality alarms, charms but, finally, infuriates his family. There is only so long, after all, that they can stand his endless confessions and naked soul before the structure of all their lives splinters and has to be reassembled. Even here, Tropper's comic touches shine: when the tension between Rich and Silver finally erupts, neither will punch the other because, as a surgeon and a drummer, both use their hands for a living.

As the novel careens to its satisfying and not entirely expected ending, Tropper leavens the humor with many tender moments, but never manipulates our emotions. Both the laughs and the tears in this sweet and clever novel are genuine and well-earned. And while there are many scenes so well-constructed they could be stories on their own and several quietly brilliant character studies, One Last Thing Before I Go is ultimately, happily, a great deal more than the sum of its parts. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Dutton, $26.95, hardcover, 9780525952367

Dutton Books: The Lost Prince by Selden Edwards and The Winter of the World by Ken Follett


Jonathan Tropper: Regret and Redemption

Jonathan Tropper is the internationally bestselling author of five previous novels: Plan BThe Book of Joe, Everything ChangesHow to Talk to a Widower and This Is Where I Leave You. He is also a screenwriter, and a co-creator and executive producer of the action drama series Banshee, which will air on Cinemax in 2013.

Silver is a complex character--by turns lovable, frustrating, pathetic and heroic--and yet feels very much like an Everyman. Can you tell us a little about your inspiration for this character?

I started out with the intention of writing a character that differed from my past protagonists in a very specific way. I've always created characters for whom redemption was a distinct possibility. With Silver I wanted to try something else. I wanted to write about someone who is already past the point where he can correct his mistakes, someone who must live every day with the consequences of those mistakes. What is the nature of redemption when it's too late to actually correct the mistakes you most regret? How do you move forward from there? I wanted to raise the stakes by writing about someone who is starting from that place. I wanted to see what redemption looks like when it doesn't physically fix anything.

Woven throughout One Last Thing Before I Go are themes of loss, regret and faith in God. How did these themes develop for you as you were writing the novel?

This novel is about a man who is brutally honest with himself. He sees himself for who he is, understands the mistakes he's made even if he doesn't have the self awareness to understand how or why he allowed it to happen. He cannot escape the regrets he has over his failure as a husband and a father. So I guess regret was a thematic component from page one. As for God--Silver has an aortic dissection that could kill him at any moment. He is also the son of a rabbi. So with that kind of upbringing, and the very real possibility of death hanging over him, there was no way God wasn't going to enter the picture in some fashion.

Despite the many ways in which Silver's family is a slow-motion train wreck, there is a great deal of genuine, tender love between them. Are they, in your opinion, a dysfunctional family? Or is dysfunctional the new functional?

"Dysfunctional family" is a term that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to novels, as a kind of catch-all for any family that has issues. All of the families I've written about in my novels have been referred to in reviews as "dysfunctional." I've generally disagreed. My feeling is, any family in which the family members will be there for each other at those key moments of need is not a dysfunctional family, no matter how much they may not get along. In this case, though, I do think we're dealing with a pretty significant level of dysfunction. Silver has been a marginal presence in the life of his daughter and ex-wife for almost a decade. His daughter, now 18, is pregnant, and he and his ex-wife can't seem to figure out how to help her. So, yes, you would find this family somewhere on the spectrum of dysfunction.

Although the novel is told primarily through Silver's point of view, you allow us generous glimpses into the minds and hearts of his teenage daughter, Casey, and his ex-wife, Denise. As a writer, what were the challenges you faced in switching among these very different points of view?

Although it's written in third person, I wanted to keep the narration pretty close. I wanted each character to have their own voice. So as I bounced back and forth in the different points of view, I had to write in the voice of a world-weary, possibly dying 44-year-old man, a precocious and pregnant 18-year-old girl and a divorced 40-year-old woman. The trick was to make each voice sound authentic, and to be able to show the same characters in two ways--the way they saw themselves, and the way the other characters saw them, altering your perception of each of them depending on whose point of view you were in.

Silver's illness, an aortic tear, leads to his physical decline but also to a number of emotional and personality changes that multiply as the novel progresses. How much research did you have to do about this condition? On a related note, did you begin writing Silver's character with the idea that he would have this particular medical condition or did you need to find a medical condition that would match Silver's emotional and physical progression?

From the beginning, I wanted there to be a significant change in Silver's behavior. This is a guy who has stood by silently, almost helplessly, like an innocent bystander to his own mistakes. So I wanted him to go through something life-threatening that actually caused him to find his voice. I thought it would be life-altering for him to actually start sharing his feelings with anyone and everyone. So I did a little research into various medical conditions that could have that effect on someone. I interviewed some doctor friends, took some liberties so as to not bog down the book with medical jargon, and came up with a plausible situation in which Silver's medical and spiritual conditions combine to generate the quirk of suddenly being absolutely truthful with everyone. It's both terrifying and ultimately liberating for him, and often pretty damn funny.

What would you most like readers to take away from One Last Thing Before I Go?

I don't really write "message" books. I want to people to be moved, to be entertained, and to reflect on their own lives and relationships--to see the truths I'm attempting to convey about life and humanity and to relate to them in whatever ways they can. One Last Thing Before I Go is about people living with regret and moving past it, it's about fatherhood and marriage and reinvention, the mistakes we all make, and how they shape us. And, hopefully, with all of that, it's a rewarding and pleasurable read. --Debra Ginsberg

Photo by Greg Yaitanes


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