Monday, March 21, 2011

The Book of Joe: Unpolished Tropper

Isn't it fun watching the evolution of a writer? If you've read any of Jonathan Tropper's three most recent novels, This Is Where I Leave You (2009), How To Talk To A Widower (2007) and Everything Changes (2005), how much better he's gotten each time is pretty apparent.

The Book of Joe (2004) is Tropper's second novel, but it reads more like a shaky debut. We have some pretty common tropes here: It's a novel about a mid-30s novelist named Joe Goffman. Joe's father has suffered a stroke, so he returns to his hometown after a long absence. But because Joe's best-selling novel and the subsequent movie basically lampooned his hometown and everyone in it, he's not exactly welcomed with open arms. Joe's also hoping to re-fire things up with his former high school sweetheart (who has been in an abusive marriage, but is now conveniently divorced and single). We've seen these movies before, haven't we?

Tropper's also got rockhead bully characters saying things like "You besmirched my reputation" and delinquent high school punks saying things like "Whatever floats your boat, man." And there are some sex scenes that would make Harlequin romance novelists wince. So it's a pretty raw novel, even comically bad in some parts.

Even so, Tropper's wit and humor are here. And so if you like Tropper, and can get by the fact that there's not much very original here, it's still a fun, quick read. The foundation for the three novels that follow this one is clearly apparent in terms of the occasional laugh out loud one-liner. And the makings of Tropper's signature dude-lit with heart are here as well, as Joe seeks his redemption. You do root for Joe, even though he's a self-proclaimed self-absorbed jerk. He's trying to make things right, in his own wise-cracking, sometimes-counter-productive way.

Two stars for The Book of Joe. Definitely No. 4 on my Top 4 list of Tropper novels, but it was fun to see how far the man has come as a novelist. The cosmic leap between this book and This Is Where I Leave You is really amazing!  


  1. I liked the one Tropper I read, This Is Where I Leave You, but I think I'll leave this one on the shelf for a little while. It sounds too similar to TIWILY and I think, given your review, I'd rather check out some of his other more successful novels first. How to Talk to a Widower perhaps.

  2. I LOVED This is Where I Leave You. I started Everything Changes last year, and it was okay but I put it aside at one point and still haven't gone back to it. It's interesting that you say he got better as he went along.

  3. Just finished This Is Where I Leave You not long ago, and I thought it was frigging brilliant. They are supposedly making it into a movie, which excited me at first, but then realized that yes, we have seen these things over and over again, and usually aren't very good. What distinguishes Tropper from the multitudes is his humor I think, and I'm not sure this will be properly captured in a movie (even though Tropper is writing the screenplay).

  4. I'm still determined to find time to read TIWILY after your review of it. Good to know that that's the place to start with Tropper instead of here, although like you, I do like seeing how an author evolves from one work to the next. There are few authors I've read deeply enough to recognize that, sadly. I'm too easily distracted by new (to me), shiny authors.

  5. I don't think I've ever read a person's canon in order to see their evolution, but it sounds like a wonderful activity.

    I have done this with bands...on a side note.

  6. @Red - Well, Tropper's novels are ALL pretty similar - his protagonists are largely indistinguishable. But that doesn't make him any less fun to read. Everything Changes is my second favorite, but How To Talk To A Widower is a very close third.

    @Julie - Yeah, TIWILY is definitely his masterpiece so far. I liked Everything Changes more for the story than Tropper's signature humor, but the humor is definitely there, too.

    @Sandy - Yeah, I caught a reading with Tropper last summer when TIWILY came out in paperback. He said pretty much all of his novels have been in development for movies at one point or another, and all of them fell through, so he's pretty cynical about the movie industry. But, he said he thinks TIWILY has the best chance so far - yes, partly because he's doing the adaptation himself.

    @Kerry - I think even if you do read an author's whole catalog, the progression and/or evolution isn't as evident as it is for Tropper. Sometimes writers take steps back and then leaps forward, but Tropper's progress seems very linear - with TIWILY hopefully not the end, as good as it is!

    @Trisha - Funny thing is, I actually read Tropper in reverse order - I think the evolution was even more apparent then. I also try to follow bands through their progression, too. But it's often hard to tell what's a progression, what's an experiment, and what just sucks.

  7. I just have to wonder what his first book is like. I always feel like it's actually the second novel that's less polished and accomplished than the debut. I've read nothing by Tropper (and I'll admit that I'm not really running to read anything by him) but I really like this method of reading - starting from the most recent and working backwards in declining order. While it may not make for necessarily good reading, it's a fascinating study of the author.