It's been a rough few months for Judd, even before his father's death. He's separated from his wife, after finding her in bed with his boss, and is living in a dingy basement apartment. And on the very day of the death, his soon-to-be ex has told him that she's pregnant.
The rest of the Foxman clan is only marginally in better shape. Big brother Paul now runs the family business, and still resents Judd, whom he blames for the injury that ruined his chances of a career in baseball. Wendy, his sister, has a husband who ignores her and children she can't seem to control. And youngest brother Phillip, the black sheep of the family, arrives with his new girlfriend, a therapist who's several years older than he is. Their mother is the author of a popular how-to book on parenting, who nevertheless often seems clueless about the problems of her own children, and is prone to revealing far too many personal details about her life and theirs to anyone who'll listen.
All of that may sound like the setup for a depressing book about dysfunctional families and death and mortality, but This Is Where I Leave You, though it doesn't ignore the sadness and the pain the Foxmans are going through, is a wildly funny book. Tropper has a gift for summing up characters and situations with sharp one-liners; Judd describes Phillip, for instance, as "the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead." The moment when Judd discovers his wife and boss in bed -- he's carrying her birthday cheesecake, lit with many candles -- is a magnificent comic bit, and later on, Tropper gives us what may be the best description ever put to paper of what it feels like to be kicked in the balls:
First there's nothing. A surprising amount of nothing actually. No pain at all, just white noise and the shock of having been hit there, in your softest of places. And because the pain has yet to arrive, you dare to hope that it won't come at all, that the impact was less direct than you first thought. And then it comes, like thunder on the heels of lightning, at first just a faint rumble, a low, steady hum of discomfort. If it were a musical note, it would be one of those bottom bass notes they use in horror films to creat an ominous sense of dread, of dark, fanged things hiding, poised to spring. It's a loaded hum, because you know a note that low has only one direction to go. And as you feel the dull, pulsating pain emanating from the center of your being, from your core, you think to yourself, I can handle this, this is nothing, I can kick this pain's ass, and that's the exact instant that you find yourself suddenly on your knees, doubled over and gasping, with no memory at all of how you got there. And now the pain is everywhere -- in your groin, your gut, your kidneys, the tightly flexed muscles of your lower back where you didn't even think you had muscles. Your body is tensed too hard to breathe right so your lungs are constricted, and you're drooling because your head is hanging, and your heart can't pump your rushing blood fast enough, and you can feel yourself teetering, but you have no muscles left to correct with, so you end up collapsing onto your side, your nerves fusing together into knotted coils of anguish, your eyeballs turned up into your skull like you've grabbed hold of a live wire in the rain.
But all the great descriptions and jokes would be wasted if Tropper hadn't given us such richly detailed characters; in addition to the five Foxmans, there are a handful of supporting characters who are, in surprisingly little time, drawn so vividly that you'd like to follow them off into stories of their own. This is a spectacularly good book, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.