Set in suburban Westchester, New York, Jonathan Tropper's irreverently funny How to Talk to a Widower proves that you can't rewrite history, even if you wanted to. "I had a wife. Now she's gone. And so am I," says apathetic twenty-nine-year-old Doug Parker, who is thrown into a maelstrom of depression when his forty-something wife, Hailey, is killed in a Colorado airplane crash.
The novel actually begins a year later as Doug is trying to piece his shattered life back together and also raise his rebellious teenage stepson, Russ. Since Hailey died, both Doug and Russ seem to have been caught in a holding pattern, the house in which they
had all lived now looking like a freeze-framed picture of the life they once had, "snapped in the instant before it was obliterated."
Doug spends most of his days trying to purge his negative thoughts through writing a popular magazine column
detailing his life as a widower. In reality, however, he seems more contented to spend his bedraggled, unshaven, bloodshot existence drowning his sorrows in drink and dope, forever "sad, pissed and lazy."
Russ is also living on the edge, turning up stoned late at night on Doug's doorstep, yet again in trouble with the police for fighting and vandalism, and inevitably fuelling Doug's frustration and grief. Of late, it seems as though Doug and Russ have become pretty emblematic of the modern dysfunctional family with the lack of personal boundaries between the both of them an issue that can no longer be ignored.
Doug's family and friends seem to think one year is certainly enough time to grieve and that it's definitely time to get back out there. Honestly, though
- who wants to go out with a depressed and miserable twenty-nine-year-old widower with no real career or goals to speak of? Claire, Doug's irreverently brilliant twin sister, is positive that a good healthy dose of romance and sex will cure him of his never-ending languor.
Doug isn't quite prepared for the eclectic assortment of femme fatales that steadily begin to walk though his life. The first to weave her seductive web is his best friend's wife, the sexually provocative Laney, who visits with her special home-cooked meatloaf and who inexorably showers her attentions on the lonely, horny, and inevitably drunk Doug.
While trying to sort through Laney's romantic conundrum and the other various attractive and semi-attractive women that he escorts in and out of different restaurants and coffee shops, Doug finds an unexpected supporter in Brooke Hayes, a twenty-seven-year-old high school guidance counselor. Doug is immediately drawn to Brooke's understanding ways, and she even becomes a kindred spirit and confidante as he tells her that lately he's built much of his life on the cornerstone "of someone else's cataclysm."
Ever faithful to his family, Doug must also contend with his father, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's and so often has no idea what is going on or even what year it is with his mind constantly folded in on itself. His mother desperately tries to cope but frequently drowns herself in prescription drugs, washing them down with white wine so that she's permanently ensconced in a narcotic haze.
There's also the truculent Jim, Hailey's ex-husband and Russ's father, who is mostly bad news and doesn't really have Russ's best interests at heart. Jim took it personally that Hailey loved Doug and that Doug lived for two years with the woman Jim once loved, with the child he fathered, in the house he had originally paid for. Meanwhile, Doug takes it personally that Jim originally cheated on Hailey and isn't really that good a father to Russ.
Tropper views these raunchy escapades with a discerning eye as he charts Doug's course through the varying stages of grief and sorrow. Whether he's trying to fend off the sexual advances of Laney, court the lovely Brooke, or attend a strip club with his best mates, "the men gathering to buck up the sad, lonely widower in their midst," Doug knows that eventually he must start living and also try and be happy again.
Although much of the plot of How to Talk to a Widower comes across as rather conventional, with the narrative often reading more like a movie screenplay than a fully-fledged novel, the story is always entertaining and the dialogue sparkles as Tropper steadily unveils Doug's most cynical and contemptuous thoughts. The novel's critical strength is the way the author tenderly explores the complex nature of grief and suffering and also the moral dilemmas that can unexpectedly come with the onset of fatherhood.
Obviously for Doug, there are no happy endings, just happy days and happy moments, and he's the first to admit that he's a mess. Maybe with time, this pain and uncertainty will add up to some "small measure of wisdom" that will help him become a good father to Russ and perhaps also allow him to move on from his sadness and loss.