Heartbreak and hilarity in debut novel ‘Model Home’

By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2010

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Award-winning short-story writer Eric Puchner’s debut novel is about nothing less than the conflicts at the heart of American life: the pursuit of all too-often illusory prosperity and what happens when people in a culture that tells them they make their own fate confront the brutal realities of chance.

The Zillers are recent transplants from Wisconsin to the gated community of Herradura Estates in Los Angeles. Warren Ziller has moved his family there to take his career in real estate development to the multimillion-dollar level. His wife, Camille, misses her friends in Wisconsin, but enjoys their new, luxurious life. Their oldest son, Dustin, loves California and is convinced he and his band are going to write a new chapter in the history of LA punk. Lyle, their bookish 16-year-old daughter, hates Southern California, hates her inability to suntan, and hates, well, just about everything. Their 11-year-old Jonas is intelligent, remote and extremely odd (some days he dresses entirely in orange). Now he would be placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But this is 1985, so Jonas is just strange.

Warren wonders just how long he can keep his family from finding out they’re broke. A nearby city put an industrial waste dump next to Auburn Fields, the housing development that was going to make them rich. He hasn’t sold a single unit. His car’s been repossessed. He told his family it was stolen. They have no savings left: It all went to Auburn Fields.

Meanwhile the personal lives of some Zillers start to spiral out of control: Camille wonders whether an affair is the cause of Warren’s distractedness, and her recent detachment from her husband at times flares into outright hostility. Dustin finds himself drawn to his girlfriend’s self-mutilating younger sister. Lyle starts having sex with the gawky new gate attendant at Herradura Estates but refuses to acknowledge him in public.

Soon seemingly unrelated decisions and mistakes by Warren, Dustin, and Lyle fit together like the pieces of a horrifying puzzle, and being penniless is suddenly the least of their worries.

“Model Home’’ tells the story of what happens when all your dreams are destroyed and how you keep going after a tragedy you could never have imagined. But at times it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Puchner is an extraordinarily talented writer. He’s a master of mood and tone, able to make moments of pure hilarity follow heartbreak with the seamlessness of real life.

And every character is perfectly realized. Puchner beautifully conveys Lyle’s teen angst: “Lyle wanted to murder her mother. She would strangle her slowly and then dump her out of the car and drive to New York, where she’d never have to wear shorts and where it was okay - sophisticated even - not to be tan.’’ He also takes you straight into the mind of the Zillers’s distant, incomprehensible son Jonas: “His mother had begun to kiss him lately, as if to make sure he was still there, but her need to keep proving it all the time only made him feel more like a ghost.’’

“Model Home’’ also provides a panoramic view of American life. In this novel, Puchner takes us into wealthy suburban homes, trailer parks, the back rooms of ice cream parlors, and Grateful Dead concerts. His characters include a son of Mexican immigrants who works all day and goes to school at night, a trio of itinerant thieves, and a professional Jesus impersonator.

This book deftly captures the ’80s, a decade of illusory wealth, tawdry spectacle, and willful innocence - which also makes it the perfect novel for our time.

Kevin O’Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe.

By Eric Puchner
Scribner, 368 pp., $26