Slouching Toward Redemption: Guilt and Death in Tropper’s New Novel

Silver, the protagonist of Jonathan Tropper’s new novel One Last Thing Before I Go, is a character cast from a familiar mold. The forty-four year old former drummer of a disbanded post-punk band known for its one major hit, Silver is the archetypal washed up rock star: a divorced, depressed, and diminished man who lives off modest royalty checks and spends his idle days near the pool of the efficiency hotel where he lives, vainly nursing the irremediable, mostly self-inflicted wounds of the past. Heartbroken, guilty, and physically unkempt, one gathers that Silver is the kind of man who would be deep in the throes of a mid-life crisis, if only he could summon the energy.

Tropper is at his best and most insightful when he describes how life happens to us whether we are ready for it or not. Silver is utterly passive and never fails to be stunned by the state of his life, which seems to have fallen hopelessly apart while he wasn’t paying attention. “[S]ince Denise and I got divorced,” Silver says early on in the novel, “I’ve been treating my life as this pit stop, just kind of regrouping before I move on. But it’s been seven years, and I never moved on. I haven’t done anything. I just…stopped.”  This sense of having been abandoned by life -left reeling in the dust — is the element of Silver’s story that feels most honest and true to life. Because his sins seem to have been mostly passive ones — born of neglect — rather than ones actively committed, it is easy to sympathize with Silver while also agreeing with him that his fate is ultimately of his own making. Indeed, Silver’s enormous capacity for self-pity is matched only by his profound and all-pervading sense of guilt. While he is deeply aware that it is well within his power to remedy his fractured relationships — with his daughter, his father, and his brother — Silver lacks the willpower and conviction to do what needs to be done to emerge from his post-divorce pit stop and move on. When he has a stroke and decides to forego a necessary, life-saving operation, and argues that his life isn’t worth saving because he wasn’t really living anyway, it is difficult to disagree with him.

Silver’s decision to neglect his pressing health concern, perhaps fatally, occurs early on and is the moment that sets the novel’s events in motion. All of the important figures from Silver’s past re-emerge from the shadows, trying to convince him that his life is worth living. As a result, Silver is pulled forcefully back into the life he had so agonizingly mourned for many years, with all of its vicissitudes, conflicts, and joys. Surprisingly, once this happens, Silver could not feel more confused, even ambivalent about it. This ambivalence causes him to behave in ways that are somewhat erratic and difficult for others to understand, as Silver is fundamentally torn between a hopeful vision of the future, in which he regains control over his life in one form or another, and a fatalistic vision, in which he allows himself to die. When Silver storms into his ex-wife Denise’s bedroom in order to tell her that he loves her, he is by his own admission not “nearly as coherent as he needed to be.” Later, when Denise sleeps with him out of a sense of pity and nostalgia, fulfilling his seven-year fantasy, Silver falls asleep moments after they finish making love. When Silver’s father, a wise and good-humored rabbi, asks him if he really wants to die, Silver answers casually that he does not, but that he doesn’t especially want to live either. Pressed further, and reminded of how his death would affect those close to him, especially his daughter, Silver provides no real response.

As a portrait of a passively suicidal, depressed person, One Last Thing Before I Go is strangely affecting due to its complete lack of melodrama and sentimentality. Tropper is consistent characterizing Silver as a man who is extremely lazy not only in his actions, but in his thoughts and feelings. Many times throughout the novel, Silver finds himself stunned, overwhelmed, or in the midst of a mini-stroke, and wonders idly if he is experiencing his own death. In these moments, Silver always retains a mood of quiet detachment; never, it seems, can he summon the energy to truly experience his life in the moment. Silver is aware of this dilemma, and describes it eloquently at one point while musing on the sex act, which he never experiences without also “observing the goings on from a neutral corner in his brain.” It is fitting that Silver, an idle man who neither truly acts nor truly thinks, expresses his autonomy through an act of passive renunciation. Like Melville’s Bartleby, he is quietly overwhelmed by life, which moves too quickly and is shaped by people much more assertive and deliberate than he. Unlike Bartleby, however, Silver renounces without conviction, and his self-destructive, erratic behavior never takes on deeper significance for either himself or the other characters in the novel.  This is probably the most honest feature of the novel. Tropper never strays from his concern with representing the infinite messiness of human lives, which when examined in their completeness, cannot be easily reduced to coherent parables.

In many ways, One Last Thing Before I Go is a good novel. For an introspective, character-driven novel it is fast-paced and elegantly plotted, and it features a somewhat unusual, intriguing protagonist. It is, however, marred at points by Tropper’s failure to effectively characterize the ancillary characters, who are all to varying degrees clichéd, and unconvincing. Silver’s teenage daughter Casey, for instance, speaks almost exclusively in archaic slang, which I suppose is meant to indicate that she is clever and unsentimental, but in effect makes her unconvincing as a contemporary young person. In the first scene in which she appears, she tells us that things in her life are “peachy” and that she’s “got bigger fish to fry” than arguing with her father about her recent tattoo.  Silver’s friends, too, are notably simplistic and hackneyed creations. Themselves divorced, middle aged, and living at the efficiency hotel, these men are comically, outrageously misogynistic, to the extent that bitterness and sexism seem to be not just the major, but the only aspects of their personalities. “I am old and fat and I survive by knowing my role in the jungle,” says one particularly odious acquaintance of Silver early on in the novel, “…[t]he rich old toad who pays to have his cock munched.” It is moments like these when characters conform too easily to stereotypical patterns that Tropper’s novel languishes.

Despite its flaws, One Last Thing Before I Go is extremely readable and sometimes even insightful. Tropper’s previous book, This is Where I Leave You (2009), is currently being adapted into a movie by Warner Brothers starring Jason Bateman and Leslie Mann. Because of its quick pacing and relatable, though deeply sad main character, it is easy to imagine One Last Thing Before I Go being adapted into a major motion picture as well. If this occurs, I hope the cinematic version preserves Tropper’s psychological insights and thematic subtlety and improves upon the overly conventional, inauthentic aspects of his novel.

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