The attack of the strawberry- chocolate cheesecake was only the beginning.
Judd Foxman, the narrator of Jonathan Tropper's very comic novel This Is Where I Leave You, is not having a good year.
Judd thought he had a good job, as a radio producer for Wade Boulanger, a shock jock of the Howard Stern lowest-common-denominator variety, "a professional a--h---, syndicated in twelve markets," as Judd describes him.
He thought he had a good marriage with Jen, the beautiful blond he fell for the first time he saw her riding a bike across their college campus. She comes close to his youthful fantasy of a wife: "a smart, sensitive, good-natured lingerie model."
Then he comes home early on Jen's birthday, her favorite cheesecake in hand, to find her and Wade in bed together, so busy they don't even notice him until he applies the cheesecake forcefully to Wade's behind.
Judd is still struggling through the divorce, raw with anger and bewilderment, when his father dies. This isn't a surprise, although Mort Foxman had tried to deny his stomachaches were anything but gas: "Into the lore of Dad's legendary stoicism would be added the fact that he spent a year treating metastatic stomach cancer with Tums."
The surprise is his final wish: He wanted his wife and four children to sit shiva. The weeklong Jewish mourning ceremony is traditional; the odd thing about the wish is that Mort was an atheist.
But Mort's widow insists, so the siblings grudgingly gather at their childhood suburban home to spend seven days and nights crouched in low chairs, receiving throngs of visitors, awkwardly renewing old relationships, devouring vast platters of food and ripping open every old wound they ever inflicted on each other.
It might not sound like fun to be them, but in Tropper's hands this is a sharply funny story rich in both one-liners and insight into the ties that bind us whether we like it or not.
Judd's mother, Hillary, is a psychiatrist and the bestselling author of Cradle and All: A Mother's Guide to Enlightened Parenting. "Predictably," Judd notes, "my siblings and I were screwed up beyond repair."
His acerbic sister, Wendy, has three kids younger than 6 and a husband who works in hedge funds, makes a mountain of money and pays far more attention to his BlackBerry than to his wife.
Paul, the oldest brother, has been a partner with his father in running a chain of sporting goods stores — a second-choice job after a devastating injury (for which he blames Judd) cut short a promising baseball career.
Youngest brother Philip is a classic ne'er do well, "congenitally incapable of moderation," unsettled as an adolescent in his 20s, but irresistibly charming.
And we know about Judd. Oh, except that just after Mort died, Jen announced she was pregnant. She and Judd lost a baby a couple of years before, a loss that shook their marriage before Wade ever did, although Judd doesn't want to see it that way.
In between stints in the shiva chairs, Judd sparks up a romance with the "ripe prom queen" he adored in high school. Philip shows up with a pretty lawyer 20 years his senior (and her Porsche), and all the hot 20-somethings in town show up to see Philip. Paul's wife, Alice, is another of Judd's old girlfriends, Wendy is having a secret fling with the son of her mother's best friend, and as for Mom, well: "You need GPS to follow the sex lives of this family."
But This Is Where I Leave You isn't just farce. Tropper is deft at combining comedy with genuine emotion. Judd becomes a sympathetic character because, for all his wisecracking and rage, he loves his family with great tenderness — including his almost-ex-wife — and mourns his father more deeply than he's willing to admit.
The book also benefits from Tropper's sense of pacing and smart dialogue. It's no surprise he's already scheduled to write a movie version of This Is Where I Leave You, after he finishes writing the script of Steven Spielberg's upcoming remake of Harvey. (Come to think of it, a guy with an imaginary giant rabbit would fit right into the Foxman neighborhood.)
By the end of the shiva, Paul has one arm in a sling, Philip has a broken hand, Judd has a split lip, Wendy hasn't slept in days and Mom has had a serious falling-out with her lover, but there's at least a conditional truce among them. Tropper doesn't overplay it — this isn't a glib comedy where every problem gets solved by the end, and Judd's last decision is a surprising one.
But, he says after the shiva, "I don't feel any closer to my father than I did before, but for a moment there I was comforted, and that's more than I expected."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.