Monday, March 15, 2010

Eric Puchner creates a dystopic California that is all too recognizable

I liked the sound of this novel even though the subject was rather dark. I've been teaching a course on California literature, and I thought this book sounded perfect.

Model Home

Eric Puchner’s remarkable first novel, Model Home (360 pages, Scribner, $26)—he has published a prize-winning short story collection called, Music Through the Floor—tells of a family of five living in a faceless but luxurious development in Palos Verdes. Warren Ziller has moved his family from Wisconsin because an old friend has persuaded him to invest in a new real estate venture.

All well and good, until it turns out that the new development of model homes, called Auburn Fields, is situated next to a toxic waste dump. As the developers start to realize their fix, Warren can do little to recoup the entire life savings (and every other financial resource of the family) that he has sunk into this scheme.

The family remains oblivious to this catastrophe: when the car is repossessed they believe his tale that it has been stolen, and when the furniture disappears he tells them all that he has ordered new ones. Camille, his wife, notices that something strange is going on, but she thinks he is having an affair. Though really he is being so vague because he wants to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Camille has a job in public school administration, and she is trying to put together a sex-education video to the consternation of her school board. The job gets her out of the house, though, and when things go absolutely belly-up with Warren’s investments, her job at least keeps them in baloney sandwiches.

But that is a world of crisis and family tragedy away from what is going on at the opening of the novel. Aside from Camille and her sex education video, their handsome oldest son Dustin is having an affair with one of the prettiest girls in his glass. As pleased as he is with Kira, though, he is also attracted to her renegade little sister, who seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

Lyle, meanwhile, his hyper intelligent sister, has begun an affair with Hector, a member of the security force guarding their housing estate. Hector is a winning character, with his collection of odd pets—chameleons, cockroaches, and small mammals—and his world-weary nineteen years. Even after he and Lyle seem to fall out of love, he remains attached to the family and involved in their catastrophe.

Finally, there is Jonas, the adorable youngest member of the family, who has fantasies about being abducted and imagines hideous ways in which he might be tortured. This is entertaining enough until he starts to take this notion of torture a little too literally. Then we may begin to wonder about his safety.

Eventually the family learns of Warren’s financial fiasco; but just as they do, they are struck with a very different tragedy. When they return from a short holiday, Dustin walks up to the house and lights a cigarette. The house explodes and Dustin is set on fire.

This event, and the tragic attempts to rebuild Dustin’s facial structure and give him some kind a life back, brings the splintering family back together for a while. But even this desperate need for unity only tears the family apart further, and eventually their differences cause a total split.

This split doesn’t feel quite right, and there are various attempts from one member of the family or another to bring things back together. Whether or not that can work remains to be seen, but what is certainly true is that they learn a lot about themselves and what they mean to each other. The ending is powerful, even if it is not the kind of happy ending we may have been hoping for.

Eric Puchner

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