The male characters in Jonathan Tropper’s books struggle with life. Success, when it comes, is fleeting or tinged with regret. Wives are unfaithful or die at inconvenient times. Aging parents are difficult; grown children, disrespectful. Happy endings are relative. In other words, Tropper’s stories reflect the messiness of family relationships. We can relate.
In Tropper’s new book, One Last Thing Before I Go, we meet Drew Silver, who experienced fame as the drummer for the Bent Daisies, a rock band whose one hit, “Rest in Pieces,” was once sung by the entire world. Pat McReedy, the band’s lead singer, went off on his own enjoying the kind of career all rockers dream of. Silver, meanwhile, was left behind to play in seedy bars and at weddings and bar mitvahs. Besides losing his band, Silver lost his family. His ex-wife, Denise, is marrying a heart surgeon, and his daughter, Casey, leaving for Princeton.
Tropper’s talent is that he infuses his stories with a great deal of humor, softening what might otherwise be depressing tales of family dynamics gone wrong. He lets us see we can never eliminate all the obstacles to happiness, or at least contentment, but that we do become better at navigating our way around them.
Silver’s life does indeed appear bleak. He lives in the Versailles, an apartment complex populated mostly by divorced middle age men. This “drab monolith” has become “the inevitable destination of all the sad and damaged men of Elmsbrook, banished from their homes in the wake of disintegrating marriages.” To relieve their boredom, Silver and the other men gather by the complex’s pool each day, salivating over the young women from a nearby college invited by Silver’s friend, Jack. Finances are tight so that Silver and Jack occasionally visit the Blecher-Royal Medical Research Facility to donate their sperm.
Silver still loves his wife and fantasizes about a reconciliation. He also fantasizes about Lily, who sings to three and four year-olds once a week in a bookstore near the research facility. He never approaches her, but hides in the self-help aisle, listening and imagining being with her.
Just when Silver thinks his life cannot possibly get any worse, Casey shows up at the pool telling him she is pregnant. Eager to lose her virginity before leaving for college, she had spontaneous, unprotected sex with her childhood friend, Jeremy. Silver holds off saying all the things another parent might say—”Are you sure?” “Who did this to you?” “You’re not the girl I thought you were”—instead asking why she chose to confide in him and not her mother or soon-to-be stepfather. Her response: “I care less about letting you down.” Despite that hurtful slight, Silver agrees to go with her to the abortion clinic.
As is so typical in Silver’s world, events take an unexpected turn. Waiting for Casey to be taken in for the procedure, Silver passes out. When he wakes, he’s in a hospital and must make a life or death decision. Silver has an aortic dissection and will die without heart surgery that will be performed by his ex-wife’s fiancé, Dr. Rich Hasting. Although Silver trusts Rich, he decides that he will not have the surgery. When his father, a rabbi, asks Silver: “Do you want to die?” Silver responds: “I’m just not sure I want to live.”
Cynics may think that Silver’s strategy is to train the spotlight on himself, enjoying the attention from his ex-wife, daughter, parents, and brother, until finally giving in to the surgery. In deciding not to have the surgery Silver is essentially not making a decision, something that has become a pattern throughout his life and led to a dead end career, a broken marriage, and failure as a parent. If he agrees to jump start his heart, he must then jump start his life. Checking out, in his view, seems a lot easier.
Silver’s illness and Casey’s pregnancy are linked in that they pose the question: who has the right to make decisions about life? The ripple effects are felt not only within Silver’s and Casey’s biological family, but also within their extended families, in Silver’s case, the men and women who make up his life post-divorce and, in Casey’s situation, Jeremy and his family. In the end, Silver and Casey will choose, but others will have to live with those decisions.
Despite Silver’s flaws, we care about him, perhaps seeing bits of ourselves in his inability to change what’s wrong in his life. He’s not malicious and truly cares about his family. But trying to solve problems by buying the injured party ice cream is woefully inadequate. And he will never move on with his life until he leaves his past life behind. Perhaps with a second chance and a mended heart, he will finally get things right.
One Last Thing Before I Go