By Eric Puchner
In the sub-genre of "suburban families whose lives go into the crapper" there are the truly standout examples like "White Noise" by Don DeLillo and "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth. Then there are those highly regarded examples like "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen or "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold. (And there are probably dozens of other examples I can't think of at the moment.)
Since his book takes place in the 1980s and a toxic incident is prominently featured, Puchner is clearly aspiring to be "White Noise" but his story and characters all have a been-there, done-that sort of feel to them. It's a decent enough read, but it's not enough to make you forget the books I mentioned above, plus probably a number I didn't. And we could throw in movies like "American Beauty" as well to murky the waters a bit more.
Anyway, as mentioned the story takes place starting in 1985 in suburban Los Angeles. The Ziller family has moved from Wisconsin a couple of years ago so patriarch Warren could launch a housing development in the desert. Except the government decides to put a toxic waste dump near the development (the toxic incident I mentioned) which wipes out Warren's dreams of wealth.
He keeps his looming bankruptcy a secret from his wife Camille, who makes educational videos for the local school district and if this were the '90s would be driving an SUV and described as a "soccer mom." The good thing for Warren is that his three children are all too engrossed in their own lives to notice the handwriting on the wall, even after Warren's car and the furniture in the house are repossessed. 18-year-old Dustin dreams of being a punk rock star. 16-year-old Lyle (short for Delilah) dreams of books and escaping her embarrassing family. And 11-year-old Jonas dreams of Mandy Rogers, a missing mentally handicapped girl.
The first act of the story begins the unraveling of the Ziller family. Warren tries in vain to sell houses in his development. Camille thinks he's having an affair and takes up smoking. Dustin becomes obsessed with his girlfriend's sister. Lyle starts seeing the older boy who works the gate of their subdivision. And Jonas starts wearing all orange.
The second act is when things really hit the fan. Like in the movie "A Serious Man" it's like the God of Job shows up to shower plagues upon the Ziller household. Really all you needed was the frogs raining down from the sky.
The third act then is picking up the pieces to get to the message such as it is.
Really I gleaned two messages from this book. The first is that if you have a family, you should value your time with them. Not just the big moments like holidays and such, but the little ones. This I found to be very true when thinking of my own family. For instance, I remember one time my dad was in the hospital and my siblings and I were just hanging out late that night, eating pizza and watching a rerun of "Wings" on TV. It's little things like that stick in your memory years later when time and space conspire to tear you apart, because you realize that just being together meant as much or even more than big gestures like Christmas or birthday presents or what have you.
The other message might not have been intended, but really when the book gets to the second act it seems like someone should be wearing a sandwich boards and shouting, "Repent, ye sinners, ye relentless consumers worshiping the false idol of Commercialism!" Because think about it, the Zillers go from idyllic Wisconsin to California, that hotbed of commercialism and phoniness best exemplified by Hollywood, and live well beyond their means in an attempt to accumulate more wealth. Then, as if in retribution, all this bad stuff happens to them. Maybe I'm overthinking this point.
Despite the problems I've mentioned, the book was interesting enough to keep me moving forward. Puchner's writing is sharp and witty, though again it's not going to make you forget about DeLillo or Roth. Parts of it in the second and third act drag a little and really the story ends with more of a whimper than a bang.
Still, I'd recommend it as a decent enough read that should remind you of the value of family and perhaps the evils of commercialism.
That is all.