Book review: The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper

The Book of Joe, by Jonathan Tropper, Bantam Books, 368 pages

I don’t often read books by men. I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. It’s just that I seem drawn to women’s voice, women’s stories. Too many male authors seem to write too much on the surface. What I like, and the reason why I read, is to confront the messy, ugly, painful places that lurk beneath all of our surfaces.

Yet when I read a sample section of The Book of Joe, I couldn’t resist. The voice was funny and self-depreciating and the protagonist, Joe Goffman, seemed so wonderfully flawed and clueless that I knew I had read more.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Okay, that’s a lie. I started to become disappointed by the third chapter or so, when the book’s humor threatened to slide over to the glib, you know what I mean, right? When humor becomes humor for humor’s sake, without the substance, the meat, to hold it up.

But it’s almost as if Tropper realized this too and suddenly pulled himself back. Because just when I was ready to question the book’s motives, it suddenly flowed. It became more complex, more layered, more nuanced. And while some of it was unrealistic (as most novels are), it never crossed over to the absurd. It was funny and yet bittersweet enough so that it often hurt to laugh. This, in my opinion, is truly the best type of humor.

Here’s the storyline: Joe Goffman grew up in a smallish Connecticut town  that was obsessed with basketball, a town where he never fit. After moving to New York, he writes a blockbuster novel that doesn’t show the town in the best of light. The book is turned into a blockbuster movie, which makes the town even more furious. Joe doesn’t care, since he never intends to return.

But when he gets word that his father is dying, he does return, and the town doesn’t exactly welcome him. His lawn is bombarded with copies of his book, he gets into fights in bars, people yell at him wherever he goes. Worse yet, his best friend Wayne from high school is dying of AIDS and the old love of his life, who is now editor at the town’s newspaper, wants nothing to do with him.

What happens next is a slip-slap sequence of events that, while often funny, just as easily can break your heart. Joe’s defenses are peeled off, one by one, leaving him vulnerable and unsure, and it’s during these moments of vulnerability that Tropper really shines. He knows how portray flawed characters, how to show both their weaknesses and strengths without judgment, how to take the simplest interaction and turn it into something beautifully human and complex.

The storyline weaves in and out of Joe’s experiences from high school, revealing how past events define and ultimately redeem him. The ending death scenes with Wayne are beautifully written and yet, oddly, still funny.

Which left me wondering: Is it okay to laugh at death? Tropper seems to think so and I must agree.

My rating? 4 stars

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