The Book of Joe
by Jonathan Tropper
Published by Delacorte Press
352 pages, 2004
Small Town Evisceration
Reviewed by Chris Gsell
In The Book of Joe, Jonathan Tropper takes us back to a time and place where, as adults, we live repeatedly in our minds, filling our heads with welcoming nostalgia. A place we often reflect upon and, if given a second chance, would do many things to change. The place is our hometown. The time is our high school years.
When we first encounter Joe Goffman, we see his wealthy, superficial side that loves his single, affluent life in New York City. Since moving away from his hometown of Bush Falls after high school, with no intention ever to return, Joe wrote a novel about his high school experiences. His story exposed many popular people and shed an unfavorable light on numerous, well respected individuals in the quiet little town. Joe's opinionated, "fictionalized account" became a bestselling book that was naturally turned into a movie. The box office hit changed his quiet little Connecticut town into a media hot spot. As a result, he acquired plenty of enemies in Bush Falls. Now, 15 years later, we find the author returning home. Not for fame or recognition, but to investigate an icy phone call from his estranged sister-in-law. In short order, Joe learns his father was just admitted to the hospital after suffering from a stroke.
As The Book of Joe progresses, Tropper moves between the present and the past, unveiling Joe's high school years and growing up in Bush Falls. We learn that his mother died at a young age, leaving him with only his older brother, Brad, and their father. Brad and his father connect via sports, a topic of little interest to Joe, and as a result, Joe keeps to himself. While working at his father's factory, Joe meets Sammy, an extroverted, gregarious and bold young man his own age. Joe's ying and Sammy's yang connect, resulting in a fast friendship. Joe introduces Sammy to his only other real friend, Wayne. The three of them grow to close that summer, spending most nights hanging out, absorbing as much as they can before their senior year commences. As their friendship strengthens, though, things take a terrible turn, affecting not only them, but the town of Bush Falls.
Tropper's picturesque writing style shines through as we are taken back to Goffman's past. High school years are filled with a mixed emotional bag of lust, love and excitement. Tropper's spot-on insights reveal Joe's high school experience and all the wonder those years carry. His vision of a perfect little town in suburban New England trying to put on a good front can be pulled from this book and applied to any town in America. Every town has their secrets, and The Falls is no exception.
As Joe returns home and visits his father in the hospital, he is treated like an unwelcome guest by the townspeople, including his brother Brad. Several people he went to high school with are still living in The Falls, and as Joe's travels take him around town, it becomes painfully obvious that he is not well-liked.
However, his one true friend from high school, Wayne, has recently moved back home, and he and Joe pick up their friendship right where it left off. Through Wayne, Joe learns that his old girlfriend, Carly, is still living in Bush Falls as well. Never forgetting Carly as he became famous, Joe finds that he still has that special place for her in his heart.
Despite these new positive wrinkles, however, Joe is still scarred by what happened in his past, and it's those memories that ground him in the truth about Bush Falls.
Luckily, Tropper's characterization of Joe, who despite being an overall quiet guy, is a quick-witted smartmouth who always has swift and sharp comebacks. During Joe's time back in Bush Falls, his daily situations take hilarious turns. Joe says things we all wish we could say to people's faces. He has no qualms and doesn't hold back. How could he, after more than 15 years of harboring these thoughts and feelings associated with The Falls?
But underlying each comedic happening or comment, there is a poignant insight or action. These touching situations create a very believable and likable character in Joe. He never loses his sense of humor and, in fact, utilizes it to defuse tense and awkward situations. When one of the town's secrets is exposed Tropper laces it with wit and humor. Joe's trip back home resurfaces these secrets, like tiny bubbles erupting on the surface of a serene pond. The ripples spread out and touch many facets of Joe's life, past and present.
Tropper keeps Joe grounded and in character every step of the way. Joe makes mistakes, and the author isn't afraid to see how they play out. No short cuts here. Tropper takes risks with Joe, and they pay off. As we understand more about what happened to the three friends during their senior year of high school, Tropper skillfully makes you empathize with them, whether you can identify with their dilemma or not.
Tropper's description of Bush Falls and its inhabitants reminded me of Richard Russo's Empire Falls, but on a more humorous level. Think of it as seeing the town of Empire Falls through the eyes of the main character in Kyle Smith's new novel, Love Monkey. Tropper's wickedly funny insights into one small town's hypocrisy are witty and touching at the same time.
Finally, Jonathan Tropper does a first-rate job of conveying the wonder, excitement and heartache that inhabit our high school years, as well as the denial and grudges we harbor in adulthood and the consequences that occur when they collide. | March 2004
Chris Gsell lives in South Jersey. By day he works for an ad agency, at night he enjoys reading and writing about books.