How to Talk to a Widower
If asked for one word to describe Jonathan Tropper's How to Talk to a Widower, I'd choose one I don't throw around lightly: sublime. Devastatingly profane, laugh-out-loud funny, yet surprisingly emotional, it's a book I'm thankful that James at a bookstore lent to me after I heard about it from Laura, who had earlier been told about it by James.
Twenty-nine-year-old Doug Parker is slim and beautiful, and after Hailey, his wife of two years, died in a plane crash he is still so sad that he cannot move on in his life. The monthly column he writes about his inappropriate grief gained him a large magazine following, yet he refuses to follow his agent's advice and write a book out of his experiences that publishers are clamoring to buy. Instead he obsesses over the annoying squirrels who live in the garden of the house he shared with his wife, the house she previously shared with her first husband and their son Russ, now a grieving 15-year-old whose father Hailey realized was banging another woman when she found his snipped pubes in their bathroom trash can.
Women in the tony Westchester neighborhood want to take care of Doug - or sleep with him - while their husbands want to buy him lap dances. But he is forced out of himself by two things: Russ needs him to step up and be a father to him, and his bossy, pregnant twin sister Claire, who's decided to move in after leaving her husband, promises him that if he turns himself over to her, she'll fix him. God knows he needs the help...and can't rely on the rest of his family. His dad, once a prominent doctor, whom he can't remember as ever having hugged him, is becoming lost to dementia while his former actress mother, a cross between Marilyn Truman and Bobbi Adler from Will and Grace, self-medicates.
Meanwhile, his younger sister is about to marry a man she met and schtupped as he was sitting shiva for his dead wife, his twin begins arranging blind dates for him that invariably go badly, and if that weren't enough, he's falling for the temptation of his wife's [married] best friend's ample charms even though the feelings aroused by Russ' beautiful, quirky guidance counselor are anything but curricular. And so he tries to move beyond the anger, sadness, and self-pity overwhelming him, even though he's equally sad that one day, when he's moved on and has a happy new life and family, all he'll have of Hailey are minor memories.
Despite his being totally fucked up, Doug Parker is an appealing hero. Here's a guy who never believed he'd end up with a woman like Hailey, a guy who's smart - well, a smart-ass, anyway - funny, and a keen observer of human nature. He may think badly of other people, but he never believes worse about others than he thinks about himself...and how attractive is that? Though his relatives are not as fully rendered, all are well drawn, and a few scenes, involving either his father or his step-son, are stand-outs. While the story does veer toward the melodramatic near the end, all can be forgiven because two of those terrific scenes occur as a result.
Jonathan Tropper doesn't write absurdist fiction, but it's high praise indeed that How to Talk to a Widower reminds me in some ways of Christopher Moore's marvelous A Dirty Job. Both authors created hilarity from the dark premise of a beloved wife's death. Both authors appeal to those of us who are "wordies," readers who enjoy the use of language itself, but Moore's novel, while it does have moments of poignance, wasn't written to provoke the same feelings of tenderness Tropper achieves in his pathos-filled comedy. Inappropriate it may be, but brilliantly, funnily so. Thank you, James, for lending me your copy.