|Thomas Wolfe may have warned that “you can’t go home again” but numerous authors have tried to prove otherwise. Jonathan Tropper’s sophomore novel, The Book of Joe is a clichéd but energetic and highly entertaining rendering of that theme. It’s not surprising that film rights to this book have already been bought; it reads like a blockbuster Hollywood movie.
Joe Goffman left the small town of Bush Falls, Connecticut soon after his high school graduation and never returned, except in his mind. His difficult youth, especially the momentous and tragic events of his senior year, became fodder for a bestselling novel and successful movie staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kirsten Dunst. At age 34, he’s wealthy and successful beyond his wildest dreams, but lonely as hell to the point where he almost looks forward to the angry calls from his near-psychotic ex-girlfriend. When he receives a midnight call informing him that his father has suffered a life-threatening stroke, he has no choice but to return to Bush Falls. There he is faced with the righteous anger of a town whose secrets have been laid bare. Former classmates beat him up, the ladies’ reading group members throw copies of his books on the front lawn of his childhood home, and the wife of the basketball coach, a singular target of his literary anger, throws a milkshake in his face.
Joe readily admits that he is a schmuck and has few real friends to help him through this crisis. He can barely relate to his older brother Brad, a faded jock, and Carly, his first and only true love, is an aloof divorcee who makes it clear she wants Joe to keep his distance. The more he tries to make amends for hurting Bush Falls residents with his book, the more he gets in trouble, and his worries are only compounded when his cheerfully greedy literary agent informs him that his second manuscript is a total failure. It’s only by reaching out to an old friend in his time of need that Joe starts to make peace with the events of his youth and finally move on with his life.
The Book of Joe is filled with clichés and Hollywood-ready scenes, starting with the Springsteen quotes that form the soundtrack for many of the pivotal flashback episodes. You can almost see Tropper casting the movie and directing the dramatic scenes as he wrote the novel. The writing is both poignant and funny, yet at times almost painfully clichéd (a young girl’s breasts are compared to “a pair of frisky puppies”). Tropper can’t write female characters to save his life, but like stereotypical men’s fantasies they sure like to have sex a lot.
Yet the whole thing works. Maybe it’s the first chapter, which draws the reader right into the story and sets the tone with its combination of sex, irony and pathos. Maybe it’s Joe’s unabashed self-centeredness (when his nephew asks him how he got so fu**** up, Joe replies, “It takes a high level of discipline. And absolute commitment. It’s like my own special super power”). Maybe it’s the fact that the novel offers a little bit of everything – sports, violence, sex and death – that marks a surefire page-turning bestseller. The flashbacks to Joe’s senior year in particular are compelling as the impending tragedy unfolds like a majestic train wreck that you can anticipate but can’t ignore. Maybe it’s that Gen-X gallows humor; for every heart-tugging emotional moment, there’s a corresponding wisecrack.
Or maybe it’s just that universal knowledge that our own adolescence was no walk in the park, and that many of us would have written a novel about our own trials if anyone would have bought it. By the end of the story, Joe is still a jerk, but one who is trying to be a better person. Like the novel’s female characters, female readers will realize that despite his flaws they’ve come to care for him and, subsequently, for this formulaic but engaging novel.