Jonathan Tropper writes prose as if he were channeling Hollywood’s masters of golden era screwball comedy – at once light as dandelion spores that paradoxically carry the atomic weight of truth. At first glance, he appears to be a screenwriter trapped in a novelist’s career, with a body of work custom designed for a second life on the big screen. And with the recent flurry of interest in his work, it would be hard to argue against that assumption. His breakthrough novel, This is Where I Leave You, has stockpiled a promising cast, lead by Jason Bateman and Tina Fey as siblings reunited in the family home to sit shiva after their father’s sudden death. And today brought news that the production has signed two of TV’s brightest talents, Timothy Olyphant and Ben Schwartz for pivotal roles as Fey’s character’s former flame and the family’s hipster rabbi.
The plot, much like a Woody Allen movie or Jonathan Franzen novel, pivots around a set of siblings whose longstanding assumptions about themselves and each other pave the way for mistakes, remorse, and comic mishaps all undercut with a rueful melancholy. It’s the kind of dysfunctional family drama that, if all goes right, could either go the way of “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Royal Tenenbaums.” On the flip side, there’s a real danger of slipping into the well-intentioned sentimentality of “Dan in Real Life” or “Home for the Holidays.”
But that threat is as idle (and misleading) as Tropper’s novels themselves. One glance at the cover of any of Tropper’s works – all declarative titles and cereal box colors and the exclamatory type of an ad slogan – and most savvy readers will assume that they are not in for a slog through the kind of opaque literary fiction that will require multiple passes at the first page. And, for the most part, they’ll be right. Tropper’s infectious and inviting wit has the power to sweep you up and carry you along on its warm updraft until the final page and your feet never have to touch the ground. But, more likely, at some point along the way, you’ll be struck down with the uncomfortable recognition that there are shades of all of us in his rag-tag ensembles of characters fumbling through the comically mundane indignities of death, divorce, and disenchantment.
In the end, Tropper is tough to categorize. Does he belong in the same cage among the literary lions of comic domestic discord (Franzen, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon)? Or, is he better suited to be cast among such Hollywood hybrids as Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta now that each of his novels have been optioned, he’s overseeing the Cinemax mistaken identity crime series, “Banshee,” and Steven Spielberg tapped him to write the script for a remake of the 1950 family dramedy, “Harvey”? Our best guess is that he’s wedged himself between the two, into a cramped space that’s slightly uncomfortable and rich with material for his next tenderhearted satire.