Model Home, Eric Puchner, Scribner, 2010, 360 pp
There is a great and fun-filled competition going on right now called The Tournament of Books, where a set of judges hold forth on 16 books published in 2010, from which they will pick a winner. I am using it as a way to catch up on books I meant to read last year. Model Home is one of the contenders.
This is a first novel by a Los Angeles assistant professor of literature at Claremont College. And it was an entertaining, dramatic story, mostly believable but in the end only as memorable as some movie I would get from Netflx and then forget a few weeks later. Still, it was fun in a depressing way while I read it.
Warren Ziller, a successful Midwestern realtor and happy family man, moves his family to Southern California in search of even bigger success and more happiness for his wife and three kids. He gets involved in a doomed real estate venture, over extends himself financially, and comes way too close to ruining their lives in the process.
There are lots of great bits: Dustin, the older son, aspiring to rock stardom with his garage band and to true love with his perfect blonde California girlfriend; Lyle, the middle daughter, who reads like I do, has pitch perfect teen speak, and falls for the Hispanic guard at the gate of their community; poor misunderstood eleven-year-old Jonas, some vaguely portrayed cross between possible Asperger's Syndrome and emotionally disturbed child.
Truly terrible things happen to all five of these people, but somehow they always have food to eat, a car to get around in, cell phones on which to call each other, medical care when needed, etc. If you live in Los Angeles (as I do) or Orange County or San Diego, you know Eric Puchner is telling the truth, mostly. But then again some things don't add up.
Would the dad who loved his kids so much really be that stupid? Would the mom, who seems to be such a nice Wisconsin woman, really be that clueless about poor Jonas? I could go on.
So actually I feel a little ashamed that I got so involved in this story because I now suspect that it was only a slight cut above a trashy novel. I think he did it with the writing which is skillful. Puchner can do humor, satire, emotion, and description all quite well. He has got the craft and he is circling around some good ideas about aspirations, family, happiness and American culture.
So, fine. I hope he gets to publish more novels. I would read them. He has a shot at the literary aspirations he clearly holds.
(Model Home is available in hard cover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)