Genuine laugh-out-loud fiction is thin on the ground but in the past I've always been able to rely on US writer Jonathan Tropper. He specialises in hilarious novels about men at crisis points - bereaved or divorced men with shambolic lives - and he hasn't changed his act for his latest novel, One Last Thing Before I Go (Orion, $36.99), yet somehow the real belly laughs are missing.
Leading character, middle-aged drummer Silver, has lost plenty. Divorced from the wife he still loves, he has neglected his daughter, Casey, and his once-glittering career as a pop star has been reduced to playing weddings and bar mitzvahs. Now Silver spends his days hanging out at the pool of his apartment building perving at bikini-clad college girls with the other divorced guys.
The man is a loveable loser but two bombshells shake him out of his apathy. First, teenaged Casey declares she is pregnant, then he discovers he has a heart condition that means he could drop dead at any minute.
The plot hinges on Silver's highly implausible decision to refuse lifesaving surgery at the hands of his ex-wife's doctor fiance. Tropper offers frail justification for this: Silver doesn't want to die exactly, but neither does he want to continue living the way he has been. The threat of impending, but avoidable, death is a crucial tool for this tale of mid-life redemption so it's best the reader goes along with it. It provides Silver with the impetus to reconnect with life and family, and to be a better man. It also results in a couple of mini strokes, which cause him to start speaking out loud the thoughts running through his head.
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Silver is equipped with much of the standard stuff of Tropper's characters: self-deprecating humour, eccentric but loving family, a tendency for long, amusing emotional riffs. The author's genius is for taking us inside a male character's head and showing us what's going on, in the manner of Nick Hornby, only better. But the result here is bittersweet rather than especially funny. Perhaps there just aren't the chuckles in mid-life angst (although Tropper somehow managed to find them in widowhood), perhaps the emotional depth is greater, or it may be that the topic is too close to the bone for the author, now in his 40s.
This is still an entertaining read but the humour is wry and bittersweet, dipping towards schmaltzy, particularly in a passage where Silver grabs the microphone at a wedding and treats the guests to his one-hit wonder.
Tropper is also a screenwriter and the co-creator of a new TV series called Banshee. His writing has a cinematic feel and this novel has already been optioned for a movie which, if they keep a lid on the schmaltz, should be great. It is a heartfelt, witty, brilliantly observed novel, even wise at times, so even if it's not quite up there laughwise with Tropper's previous titles, One Last Thing Before I Go is still a rewarding read.