Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I've now read/heard a zillion stories about the US financial crisis. Without a glass of wine, I sometimes attempt to explain what a credit default swap is (it's a much funnier explanation if I have one), and every now and then I use the word tranche, since I like the way it sounds and kinda understand what it means.
But after reading Eric Puchner's new novel, "Model Home," I feel like I understand the crisis on a micro level, with insight into what happens to a family in the midst of financial ruin. Set in the mid-1980s in Southern California, "Model Home" follows the Ziller family's downward spiral and how it affects each of its members.
What happens to the Zillers could only happen in California. Sure, tragedy can strike in Ohio and Nebraska, but it is the particulars of place that Puchner gets so right in "Model Home." This book is a product of the California landscape, with its mythic promise of affluence, and its counterweight, the harsh sunbaked reality of loss.
Despite being a downer of a topic - and believe me, there are events in this novel more depressing than economic ruin - "Model Home" manages to be quite funny, with a speedy, sometimes melodramatic plot and well-drawn teenage characters. In the end, it's the book's attention to youth culture that I loved most.
Walter Ziller moves his wife Camille and their three children from Wisconsin to Southern California into a vanilla, upper middle-class gated community close to the beach. Unfortunately, Walter also invested the family's entire savings in a doomed real estate venture in the desert. He keeps this information to himself for the first half of the book, leaving his children and wife to wonder why he's behaving so strangely, shuffling about the house and sitting for hours listening to his son's band practice (to the latter's extreme embarrassment).
Walter's secrets threaten his marriage, yet he's so depressed he can't figure out how to turn things around. Puchner doesn't seem to know what to do with Camille, Walter's wife. Her character is flat and less interesting, and the depiction of their marriage suffers because of it.
Puchner is at his best when writing about the Ziller teenagers: the oldest boy, Dustin, and his sister, Lyle. Dustin is a good-looking surfer, has a perky girlfriend, and practices with his band in the family garage. There's a hilarious riff on band names in the book, as the members try to come up with the perfect name. I laughed out loud when they settled on Toxic Shock Syndrome. Puchner is clearly a music fan, mentioning SoCal bands of the 80s, like Black Flag, X, and the Circle Jerks throughout the book.
Lyle, the teenage daughter in "Model Home," reminds me of Thora Birch's character Enid in "Ghost World." She's pale, consumes books, and shoots daggers of sarcasm. Early in the book, Lyle makes a list of 23 things she despises. It includes "people who own Smiths records and don't know that the lead singer is gay," "dogs small enough that they shiver when they take a dump," and ends with California, in all caps.
Experiencing the heady, sexually confusing teenage years in Southern California with these two characters is one of the joys of the book. Then tragedy strikes. And in "Model Home" it strikes with a touch of melodrama and symbolism. What happens to the Ziller family is horrible and incredibly sad (though Puchner manages to keep the humor in play).
The Ziller family may look different at the end of "Model Home," but seeing how they get there is a compelling read. Towards the end of the novel, Walter thinks "You've got your whole life ahead of you, people liked to say. In truth there was not much time, a blip, and most of what you did was a mistake. You were lucky to find a safe and proper home."
This is a book about failure and family. In the grandest terms, it's a book about the failure of the American Dream, not unlike it's theatrical cousin "Death of a Salesman." It's the California setting and the current economic crisis that make this well-crafted book all the more resonant.