What Can We Steal From Jonathan Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go?

Title of Work and its Form: One Last Thing Before I Go, novel
Author: Jonathan Tropper (On Twitter: @Jtropper)
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The novel can be found at all fine bookstores.  Especially independent bookstores.  (Those places RULE!)
Bonuses: Here is Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of the book.  And here is another review by Pat Finn, who was writing for the Tottenville Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Silver was the drummer for the Bent Daisies, a band who hit the big time with their hit “Rest in Pieces.”  The band crumbled after the lead singer went solo and Silver is now a broken man whose antics lost him his family.  When we meet Silver, he’s on the way to a hospital to make a little money by providing a sperm sample as part of a drug trial.  The man’s life is a mess; his ex-wife is about to marry a very good man, his daughter is pregnant and a flaw in his aorta is going to kill him post haste.  Through the course of the novel, Silver regains his ability to enjoy life and rebuilds his family and support system.

Jonathan Tropper is one of the writers I follow closely because (like Tom Perrotta) his stuff is both literary and entertaining.  (These are the ambitions I have for my own work!)  His books appeal to me for another perfectly normal reason: most of his stories are about white male heterosexuals who sometimes don’t make the best decisions.  I can relate to these protagonists quite easily! Although Mr. Tropper switches POV at times throughout the novel, the narrator is describing the world through Silver’s eyes.  Silver’s libido is an important part of his identity.  He desperately loves his ex-wife Denise and doesn’t want her to remarry.  He feels lust/love for Lily, a musician who plays a regular gig in the children’s section of a bookstore.

Tropper interrupts the narrative several times with accounts of Silver’s memory of a different woman he loved (and made love to).  Here’s an excerpt that I felt contained some particularly beautiful language:

She [Maggie Seals] was taller than him, a long, limber playground of a girl, and in the black light of her dorm room, the silken mileage of her skin went on forever.  He followed her around like a puppy for his entire freshman year, and went broke calling her long-distance over summer break, but she still showed up the next fall with a prepared speech and a new boyfriend.  For a long time afterward, every girl he slept with felt just a little too small.

These accounts of Silver’s romantic encounters are completely disconnected from the rest of the narrative, but provide direct characterization.  They appear on their own pages and are italicized, ensuring the reader understands their purpose.  Some readers may dislike that the narrative is interrupted, but I think the interstitial mini-narratives offer potent characterization.  We do need to know about Silver’s romantic past, and it would have been boring had the narrator needed to incorporate the stories into the larger narrative more organically.

I don’t know if you agree, dear reader, but it can be a struggle to write dialogue scenes during moments of great conflict.  It’s easy to over-choreograph the dialogue: to add too many facial gestures, to want to add too many “significant” movements for your characters.  Mr. Tropper offers an easy solution: let the dialogue (and the characters) speak for themselves.  Mr. Tropper can go quite a long time without dialogue tags or offering additional description as to what is happening in the scene.  Here’s an example from early in the book.  Silver’s high-school-senior daughter Casey has just confessed that she is pregnant:

“How’d your mother take it?”

“She’s OK.”

“Really?”

“I haven’t exactly told her.”

“Ah.  Smart move.”

“You’re the only person I’ve told.”

“OK.”
“How does that make you feel?”

“You sound like my therapist.”

“You still go to therapy?”

“Nah.  I gave up years ago.”

“Mental health isn’t for everyone.”

“Neither is contraception.”

“Well played, Silver.”

Providing only the dialogue is a shrewd move at this point because the reader really, really wants to know how father and daughter will deal with the development.  Are we confused as to which character is speaking?  Nah.

What Should We Steal?

  • Stop your story cold if it helps you accomplish characterization.  Ordinarily, breaking up your narrative thread is a cardinal no-no.  On the other hand, rules are made to be broken.  If messing with your narrative in a “crazy” way will work for your piece, go for it.
  • Strip your dialogue bare to let your reader mainline the drama.  Instead of choreographing your dialogue scenes too much, think about pruning them to the bone.

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