Off the Shelf Challenge 2021 - January
I write in my books. It’s why I’m not a very good library user. In this month’s Off the Shelf pick, I worked really hard to not write in it. For two reasons: one, I wanted to read it for the sake of reading and two, I felt like I’d probably just end up highlighting whole sections of such beautifully written prose it routinely broke my heart.
This is the first entry for the Off the Shelf Challenge and I wasn’t sure what format these posts would take so I’m going to try this one and see if it does what we need it to do. I’ll accept your feedback, dear reader, in the comments below.
Where I bought the book is the first note I make in the book. I write where and when I purchased it on just about every acquisition. So I flipped this one open to see where and when and … nothing. I apparently didn’t record that.
So here’s what I know about this book: the copyright is August 2012 and this is a hardback version, so it’s probably of that year. The cover price says $26.95 US but on the back is a label printed by a local cycle-up consignment store called Roundabouts that priced the book at $8. The label also says 11/19/2015 which I can guess was when the book was acquired. I apparently purchased it sometime after that.
This book follows Silver, a fifty-something former musician who is estranged from his ex-wife and daughter. He’s living in a sad apartment complex with dozens of other former husbands and earning $70 a week for ejaculating into a cup as part of a scientific research study. The sadness of Silver’s existence is quickly established - he’s a has-been musician from a one-hit-wonder band, and more like a passenger in his own life than an active participant until he’s diagnosed with an operable but life-threatening heart condition.
The book is a third-person close narrative with alternative viewpoints of Silver and his daughter, Casey, a recent high school graduate, whose own medical crisis pulls Silver back into her life while intersecting with his new diagnosis. We also get a few segments from the POV of Denise, Casey’s mom and Silver’s ex. The fragments of this former family and the way they try to repair the ties and heal old wounds are the primary occupation of the novel.
What I Loved
The prose is perfect. Phrases like, “When you grow up in a rabbi’s house, God is part of the package, an amiable resident ghost, floating about in corners, sitting in the empty dinner chair, peering in through the curtains after you get tucked into bed.” I can only imagine all of Tropper’s work reads this way: regular language elegantly constructed for just the right impact.
There’s also this meta-understanding of the language when Silver begins saying aloud his internal thoughts. It’s a manifestation of his sickness, and serves to break barriers between himself and others, so it’s a great device. But it also calls attention to the way the thoughts are constructed -- they are not the same as dialogue -- and yet they’re used as dialogue. Which is so simple a device as to be obnoxiously brilliant.
In one encounter, after the device has been well established, Silver approaches a woman he’s been admiring from afar. The internal monologue reads, in part, “He senses a profound kindness in her, a softness he wants very badly to know and protect… He could be a better man for her.” The woman looks strangely at him and replies, “You know you’re saying this out loud, right?” to which he responds, “I do now.”
The reader is left to wonder if Silver thinks of himself in third person: “he senses,” and “he could,” or if he’s monologued the passage as, “I sense,” and “I could be.” And this trick, this device, is so compelling that when it’s used strategically throughout the book, it endears us both to Silver and to the story itself. Not to mention as he’s being honest and revealing secrets, the character is also forcing other characters to respond and spurring the plot forward.
So, like I said, brilliant. And simple. So simple I’m jealous of it.
What I didn’t like
We don’t have any reason to like Silver, he’s a self-admitted screw up who doesn’t really know why he let his family slip away and his life fall apart. Now, as he’s diagnosed with a failing heart, as his daughter is in crisis and his ex-wife is about to remarry, he seems to want to make a comeback and although he admits he doesn’t deserve a second chance, we nonetheless hope he gets one.
I don’t like that we don’t get the details of the marriage’s demise. We never see the moment when Denise kicked him out. We’re given the same kind of apathetic summation of the events leading up to his being in a kind of effortless fog for seven years that Silver himself feels and I was frustrated by that. I get it -- life isn’t one mistake that ruins us. It’s a series of careless declines, things we decide not to do, that leaves us desolate. But such a realization is both depressing and lets both Silver and Tropper off the hook.
Should You Read This?
I’d recommend it. I picked it up Sunday and was done Wednesday evening. It’s easy to stick with, engaging and well-written. It’s not particularly groundbreaking but that’s part of what makes it so good - its smallness is self-aware and it echoes one of those universal truths that one only learns after years of believing otherwise: It’s never the big things that matter. It’s always the accumulation of small things that really determines our satisfaction with our own life.
What did you read this month? Leave the book’s purchase link in the comments and answer the prompts: Origin, Summary, Liked, Didn’t, and Would you recommend it.