“Statistically speaking, it’s damn near impossible to write a best-seller. It’s also remarkably difficult to piss off an entire town. Overachiever that I am, I managed to accomplish both feats in one fell swoop. When it comes to alienation, I’m something of a prodigy.”
Protagonist Joe Goffman returns from Manhattan to his small Connecticut hometown of Bush Falls after trashing its inhabitants in his bestselling novel (that’s later turned into a movie…to make matters worse) that shares its name with the town. He left right after he graduated high school and has been gone for 17 years. Joe’s estranged from his family and any friends he may have had (which weren’t that many to begin with) and the only reason he’s returned to the town he never thought he’d see again is because his father–to whom he could never relate and has always felt to be a disappointment–had a stroke and is in a coma.
Like many first-time authors, Joe’s book is more than just a little autobiographical. It’s based on events from 1986–his senior year in high school–where he lost almost everything he held near and dear to his heart. And also like many first-time authors with autobiographical novels, he’s embellished and exaggerated the qualities of his characters as well as added a few of his own–most of which are less than flattering.
Needless to say, his characters’ real-life counterparts are less than thrilled about how he’s portrayed him and they take it out on Joe just hours after he’s arrived back in Bush Falls. From milkshakes thrown in his face and copies of his book hurled at his childhood home, to public beatings and acts of vandalism against his car, the now 34-year-old author learns very quickly that he’s definitely not welcome in Bush Falls anymore.
But as the story alternates between present day and that eventful year, it’s clear that Joe hasn’t really dealt with the events as well as he thought and suffers what can only be described as a existential crisis as he looks back at the 17 years he’s been away and realizes that besides the success he’s had with his career, he has nothing to show for it: no family of his own, no significant romantic relationships, no close friendships. When he receives the news about his father, he tries to think of a friend to call but can’t think of anybody who he isn’t linked to professionally. Joe realizes that the closest thing he has to a friend now–somebody who he cares about as they care about him–is his agent Owen Hobbs and that’s only because Owen’s paid to care.
With how horribly and completely he shreds the characters in his book without thinking twice about how it’ll affect the folks back home, to say that Joe is egotistical and self-centered is an understatement. But some of the egotistical and self-centeredness has caused moments of guilt in Joe where he tells himself there was more that he could’ve done back then and been there more for his friends so things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.
Joe’s a very flawed character and it would be easy to hate him for being such an asshole–a title he constantly debates with himself about deserving. But what Tropper does well with his protagonist is balance the asshole qualities with moments of clarity when Joe realizes these qualities and tries to fix things. Both about himself and some of the people who were subjected to said qualities–whether it’s with his older brother Brad or his high school sweetheart and the only woman he’s ever really loved, Carly.
Tropper leaves room for growth not only in Joe but other key characters as well. And grow they do as the story progresses. And all in all, that’s what the story is all about. How the people of this small town didn’t exactly react to an event in the best way possible but, for the most part, were able to redeem themselves in the end.