Criticizing Jonathan Tropper for representing one specific worldview is sort of like criticizing The Ramones for not using a string section. Yet that’s usually what I hear when criticism is levied against him: his stories are too white, too male, too thirtysomething anxious. If there’s any discussion about whether or not he deals with those things well, it’s often tinged with condescension about the perspectives he’s not representing. Which, I have to say, makes little sense to me. Just because Tropper writes from (and about) the perspective of an approaching-middle-age white dude doesn’t mean he’s discounting the struggles of anyone else in the world. It’s criticism of omission; rather than engaging with where he has or hasn’t succeeded, it’s condemnation based on what he hasn’t tried to do at all because it wouldn’t be appropriate for the stories he’s telling.
I mean, look: it’s clearly important we keep our own struggles in perspective. At no point do I believe that my anxiety at getting older can hold a candle to the mind-numbing terror felt by people experiencing ethnic genocide – or even people who simply struggle day to day to make ends meet. But it’s my anxiety, and no matter how much I try to empathize with others, I still have to come home and deal with my own head. So as soon as we start saying, “Well, this novel is inferior because the main character’s problems are relatively small potatoes compared to what other people in the world are dealing with,” we’re just competing in the Olympics of Misery, where the person with the saddest story wins and everyone else loses, seeing their own personal struggles diminished in the process. I’d like to think I can enjoy Tropper and Richard Wright, thank you very much, and that just because I identify with the travails of schlubby white guys, that doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the plight of women and minorities. And, I should add, just because one author chooses to write about schlubby white guys doesn’t mean other people’s struggles are automatically minimized. I’m not sure where this notion came from that every work of art has to be the United Nations, but here we are.
I say all this because Everything Changes, the fifth of Tropper’s books I’ve read, is just as funny and truthful as the other four, even if it does continue to plow a similar furrow as the others. This time around, Zack, a – you guessed it – thirtysomething white guy, is stuck in a job he hates, engaged to a woman he adores but doesn’t love, and secretly pines for the widow of his best friend. On the same day his estranged father shows up on his doorstep after fifteen years, Zack sees blood in his urine and is faced with the prospect of a cancer diagnosis. He uses the convergence of all these events – health, father, shitty job, engagement party – to make some drastic changes in his life, only he does so in the most passive way possible: by generally doing nothing, choosing instead to let his disengagement take care of things on its own.
There are a lot of the usual Tropperisms his fans will recognize and new readers will enjoy. First and foremost, we get self-aware, smart-alecky dialogue spoken by well-drawn characters that verge on the realistic without quite making the jump to people we’d be likely to meet in everyday life. In addition to Zack there’s his well-read punk-rock brother Matt; his other brother, the mentally impaired Peter; his self-sacrificing mother Lela; Norm, the wayward, Viagra-popping father; Jed, a self-made millionaire who’d rather stay home and watch TV; Hope, the too-perfect fiancée; and Tamara, the widow to whom Zack would rather be engaged.
And like Tropper’s other novels, this one does feature some sequences that verge on sitcom territory – a punchup at the engagement party, a disastrous encounter with a groupie, a golf course confrontation with a doctor – but the hallmark of Tropper’s work is the way he’s able to weave threads of genuine insight into a tapestry of broad comedy. Zack has this realization in the book’s final third:
This is what happens. You piss blood one day and it somehow makes you think that maybe your life isn’t taking shape the way it’s meant to and, at thirty-two years old, if you’re going to be making any changes, you had best make them come quick. So you give it a whirl, and it’s like trying to make a ninety-degree turn in a speeding boat, and the whole thing just flips over, and you’re submerged in the frigid, churning waters, bobbing roughly in your own broken wake. And no matter which way you turn your desperate gaze, there’s absolutely no land in sight, which is strange, because you didn’t think you’d gone out that far to begin with.
Is the sensation of feeling lost in the way Zack feels lost only the province of characters like him – the thirty-year-old middle-class white dudes? I’d argue not, and it feels to me like anyone getting hung up on the demographics of Tropper’s protagonists are ignoring – maybe willfully – the universality of his work. We all wrestle with family dynamics, we all feel ambivalence about the people we love, we all – at one time or another – find work boring and life unsatisfying. Are these seismic struggles, the kind that change lives in an instant? Of course not. But they are the kind that leave hairline fractures in the foundation, the ones that accumulate over time and, if not remedied, can reduce lives to rubble.
The Beautiful South – Carry on up the Charts: The Best of The Beautiful South (1995)