13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2010
I ran across Eric Puchner when I read a kind of review he wrote about the craft of writing. I found his article to be smarmy and annoying, but at the same time, I realized that I was reading some very excellent writing. The end of the piece mentioned his new novel, "Model Home." And I thought to myself, "Well, I would like to read this in the hope the writing is as good as this." And I was not disappointed in the least. It's a fine and, in places, a heart-wrenching read chronicling the travails of the Ziller family as they literally lose everything, finally compelled to move into a failed real estate development in the desert. The characters we have all seen before - the failed father, the vengeful wife, the handsome elder son with dreams of rock and roll glory, the sometime "Wednesday Addams-ish" middle daughter, and the lovably quirky yonger son possessed of an old, old soul. But instead of making them "stock," Puchner manages to breathe an immediate life into them all, making them fresh and three-dimesional. I found myself emotionally invested in the Zillers, and that is rare.
The prose voice Puchner chooses is disarmingly straightforward, but full of small, poignant observations about the everyday world, giving the novel a gripping immediacy. And, at points, the writing is laugh-out-loud funny, a beautiful contrast to the tragic unravelling of the Zillers yet to come. It is difficult not to love an old dog who howls at rocks and a kid who wears nothing but orange. The plot is refreshingly uncomplicated even if the characters are not, allowing them to be fully fleshed out and developed. And Puchner can write not just well, but amazingly so, possessing that rare gift of being able to communicate complicated emotional states without bludgeoning his reader with overwrought dialogue or condescending to his audience. And one portion of the text, the burn unit scene, is especially harrowing, making me, once, put the book down to get my bearings.
Comparisons to works like "Ordinary People," "American Beauty," and "Them" are, perhaps, unavoidable. But Puchner's work stands on its own merits, and it is my hope that he will, one day, have the Zillers invite us all back into their lives.
Recommended with enthusiasm.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
'Model Home' by Eric Puchner is a novel that takes place during an eighteen-month period between 1985 and 1986 in the Los Angeles area. It is the story of a family that is trying very hard not to fall apart at the seams. Warren, the dad, is a realtor who has invested all of his family's savings in a housing development that sits far out in the desert right next to a toxic dump site. His investment has gone belly-up. At first, when his car is repossessed, he tells his family that it was stolen. When the creditors come for his living room furniture, he tells his family that he is tired of leasing furniture and that he has ordered much nicer stuff that will arrive next month. Naturally, Warren is acting strangely. His wife, Camille, who works on developing videos for school sex education programs, thinks that Warren is having an affair. When the truth of their bankruptcy comes out, Camille is relieved that Warren's strangeness is not due to an affair, and for a brief time Warren and Camille find themselves content with one another.
There are three children in the family. Dustin, the oldest, is a good looking teenager with a beautiful girlfriend, who likes to surf and is planning on going to UCLA next year. Gradually, he starts to fall for Taz, his girlfriend's Goth sister who has scabs on her ears from picking at them and has pulled her own fingernails out. Lyle is the middle child, a girl who feels different and left out of the mainstream. She lives in L.A. and desperately wants a tan but all she can do is burn. She designs t-shirts with monograms like 'Death to Sandwiches' or 'Like a Sturgeon'. She begins having an affair with Hector, the Mexican security guard at their housing complex. Jonas, 11 years old, is the youngest. He is obsessed with death and is focusing specifically on the murder of a 'retarded' girl in their neighborhood. On some days Jonas likes to dress all in orange, including his socks.
The family has been living in a plush housing development way beyond their means. Warren had thought he'd strike it rich with his real estate scheme and that nothing was too good for them. They soon have to leave their cush domain and move into one of Warren's model homes in the desert - in that very same complex next to the toxic dump site. Naturally, they are the only family living there as no other homes have been sold. Camille now has a three hour round-trip commute for her job and Lyle is living with a friend because it is too far to commute to school. There is no money left to send Dustin to college since they're broke so he keeps himself busy with his garage band. Jonas is like the lost child.
As the children are growing up, they are pulling away from their parents. Everyone in this novel is wanting to be something more, something better, or something different than who they are. Their ambitions often lead to tragic outcomes. This family has more than one 'before' and 'after' to face. As they face catastrophes, the reader watches as the thin fiber that has been holding this family together unravels. Despite the unraveling, the novel asks poignant questions about the nature of family and love. Can family members love one another despite the most severe pain, anger, and resentment. Are they still whole once they are damaged? What is the source of love and strength that inspires families to hold on?
Part of the plot deals with a character who gets severely burned. The author speaks with great knowledge about burn units, burn treatment and burn victims. The descriptions are graphic and remind me of scenes in The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Puchner manages to conjure up the smells, agony, and sounds of a burn unit and the reader is pulled along into this traumatic event.
The writing in this book can be uneven. Sometimes it is so beautiful that it can take your breath away, especially towards the end. However, there are times when it tries to be too clever for its own good. Phrases and sentences seem to be slipped in just because they sound good. Overall, it is a rewarding novel to read. The author ties all his ends together and there are no red herrings among the characters. I appreciate that in a novel. Every character is developed and has his or her place. Each character is unique with their own set of idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. Puchner is a writer to watch and I look forward to new publications from him.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
There have been many novels written about the American Dream -- Tom Perrotta's Little Children, John Updike's Rabbit Run, or the short stories of John Cheever come to mind -- but rarely has a debut writer tackled the subject so skillfully and with such originality.
This novel focuses on the Zillers -- a family in search of the quintessential American Dream within the affluent splendor of southern California. In doing so, they leave the "real" world of Wisconsin, which had been "bright and crowded and happy, alive with the sound of acorns dribbling down the roof, the living room windows opening to the summer breeze off the lake...a crowded hivelike sense of communication...a minefield of shoes."
In California, the dream becomes unhinged. Unbeknownst to his family, Warren (the dad) is flat-out broke due to real estate deal gone bad. While he scrambles to hide his financial state from his loved ones, his family is coming apart: Dustin, the oldest son, has fallen for his perfect girlfriend's very imperfect younger sister...Lyle, the daughter, is having an affair with the Latino security guard...and Jonas, the youngest, is dressing entirely in orange and obsessing about death. As things spiral out of control, a terrible tragedy affects the family and forces them to move out to the desert -- a literal and figurative wasteland where there is no air for anything to grow...including connectiveness.
Eric Puchner rarely misses in his depiction of nonconformist family members struggling for identity and meaning. Only on rare occasions does he falter; his minor characters, such as a hearing-impaired Deadhead scam artist are a little over-the-top. When he focuses on the highly original, quirky, striving Zillers -- as he does for the majority of the novel -- the result is often tender and magical.
It took me a little while to realize that each chapter could be a short story onto itself; the last paragraph of each chapter packs its own separate punch. As the mother, Camille eventually observes, "The mystery of life was not how it started. It was how people with every excuse to be close could grow distant as satellites."
Closing that distance is a major theme of the novel. Eventually, Warren muses, "Was that really all there was to love? Darkness undone, a hand on your forehead. In the meantime, all you could do was wait -- tired, alone, the minutes as long or short as a lifetime--for the face of your dream to appear." This book is as unpredictable as life itself...and as rewarding.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2012
It's the mid-1980s and Warren Ziller truly believes in the American Dream, so much so that he moves his family from Wisconsin to California to pursue a real estate deal, building affordable homes in the desert. But things don't go quite the way they should, and Warren is trying to hold it together without alerting his family to the impending disaster, despite the fact that his car has been repossessed (he says it was stolen), their furniture has been returned to the company they leased it from (he says he planned to surprise his wife with better furniture) and he is wandering around in a daze waiting for the other shoe to drop.
His wife, Camille, thinks Warren is having an affair and starts enacting her revenge, and his three children have their own issues--Dustin, an affable surfer and aspiring rock musician, finds himself obsessed with his girlfriend's troubled younger sister; Lyle, who has prided herself on being different, is torn between wanting to be popular and maintaining her relationship with a security guard; and Jonas, the youngest, who becomes obsessed with the kidnapping of a local mentally challenged girl. When tragedy strikes, the Zillers must move into one of Warren's model homes in the desert, and then they start to realize the truth about themselves and each other.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I think Eric Puchner is a really good writer, but I found so many of the characters so unlikeable that I didn't care what happened to them. For me, one of the most frustrating things in a book is when characters won't communicate with each other, and every single character in this book wouldn't say what they meant. The story never quite "hooked" me, although some of Puchner's language was beautiful. And while I felt that the Puchner's depiction of the tragedy was done with a great deal of detail and empathy toward the characters, it just felt forced, as if the family needed a tragedy to come full circle.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
It sounded like the perfect idea to Warren: move the family out to California from Wisconsin, invest every penny to his name in a remote desert real estate development, and live way beyond his means. That is, until the government decided to build a toxic dump by the houses, rendering them absolutely unsellable, and hence monetarily and spiritually bankrupting his family. Eric Puchner's first novel is an admirable debut.
The Opposite of Toxic:
- This book has a lot going on, between the storylines of Warren Ziller, his wife, and their three children. Puchner devotes the same amount of care and development in each one, alternating between perspectives while still tying them into a cohesive unit.
- Puchener's exploration into the family dynamics during different types of tragedies is seemingly realistic and fair. Parents don't always unconditionally love their children, or treat them fairly, and the discussion of the related guilt is interesting and emotional. His look inside an unraveling marriage is also very poignant.
- There is an underlying humor and irony tucked into all the right places, so that the depressing events that continuously happen don't make you want to put your head in the oven while reading.
- One particular character that stood out was Hector, the gated community guard that becomes involved with the Zimmers- Puchner creatively takes what seems like a minor character and subtly connects him to everyone and everything.
For Novel #2:
- At a few points in story the writing seemed slightly forced- just a little too wordy, too contrived, and unnatural.
Interesting read- a little dark, but still really good. I am excited to see what Puchner does next.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 23, 2011
After about 50-75 pages of this book I was very interested in it as the characters were all portrayed creatively and I saw numerous themes for the author to explore. Yet I'm unsure what happened to the author that made him bored by his early portions of the book as he then completely did a U-turn and shifted the book in strange ways time and again until you didn't even know what you were reading. Everything about the characters in the first quarter of the book was different from them in the last 3/4 of the book and while I can appreciate a "dynamic" character as much as the next person the changes didn't appear natural and just felt forced. The dialogue was phony, the characters shifts in opinion rarely made sense, Jona's unreal intelligence for a kid his age, and just how poorly written the prose were in general all made me lose interest. If this wasn't a book club selection I would have put it down at about the 150 page mark as it was a pretty poor book. It reminded me, especially the middle part with the Taz-Dustin relationship, of "Less than Zero" if that book had been written on a junior high level. If you want a cheesy, poorly written, nonsensical plot than this book is for you, otherwise I would steer clear of this one. I can't wait to watch the movie though when James Franco plays Dustin as an over the top pothead, he's in everything!
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2011
This book began with amazing promise. The characters are so well drawn they leap off the page. The writing was crisp and clever and I felt completely drawn in, even reading passages aloud to whoever would listen. But eventually it began to crystalize that as these characters sank deeper and deeper and their lives became increasingly worse, none of them would do anything to change it. It became one maudlin or melodramatic moment to the next. It was as if the author went into some sort of increasing despair as the story progressed and it spilled over into the lives of his creation... and subsequently drowned them.
As much as I admire the way things began, the let down was that much stronger at its conclusion. The story went out with barely a whimper. There was literally nothing to root for, nothing to hope for, other then that the lives of each of them might be snuffed out sooner to end the suffering. The shame of it is Puchner is clearly such a gifted writer. You can see it immediately in his craft. But this one just seemed like nothing more than a series of unfortunate events.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
In the sub-genre of "suburban families whose lives go into the crapper" there are the truly standout examples like "White Noise" by Don DeLillo and "American Pastoral" by Philip Roth. Then there are those highly regarded examples like "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen or "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold. (And there are probably dozens of other examples I can't think of at the moment.)
Since his book takes place in the 1980s and a toxic incident is prominently featured, Puchner is clearly aspiring to be "White Noise" but his story and characters all have a been-there, done-that sort of feel to them. It's a decent enough read, but it's not enough to make you forget the books I mentioned above, plus probably a number I didn't. And we could throw in movies like "American Beauty" as well to murky the waters a bit more.
Anyway, as mentioned the story takes place starting in 1985 in suburban Los Angeles. The Ziller family has moved from Wisconsin a couple of years ago so patriarch Warren could launch a housing development in the desert. Except the government decides to put a toxic waste dump near the development (the toxic incident I mentioned) which wipes out Warren's dreams of wealth.
He keeps his looming bankruptcy a secret from his wife Camille, who makes educational videos for the local school district and if this were the '90s would be driving an SUV and described as a "soccer mom." The good thing for Warren is that his three children are all too engrossed in their own lives to notice the handwriting on the wall, even after Warren's car and the furniture in the house are repossessed. 18-year-old Dustin dreams of being a punk rock star. 16-year-old Lyle (short for Delilah) dreams of books and escaping her embarrassing family. And 11-year-old Jonas dreams of Mandy Rogers, a missing mentally handicapped girl.
The first act of the story begins the unraveling of the Ziller family. Warren tries in vain to sell houses in his development. Camille thinks he's having an affair and takes up smoking. Dustin becomes obsessed with his girlfriend's sister. Lyle starts seeing the older boy who works the gate of their subdivision. And Jonas starts wearing all orange.
The second act is when things really hit the fan. Like in the movie "A Serious Man" it's like the God of Job shows up to shower plagues upon the Ziller household. Really all you needed was the frogs raining down from the sky.
The third act then is picking up the pieces to get to the message such as it is.
Really I gleaned two messages from this book. The first is that if you have a family, you should value your time with them. Not just the big moments like holidays and such, but the little ones. This I found to be very true when thinking of my own family. For instance, I remember one time my dad was in the hospital and my siblings and I were just hanging out late that night, eating pizza and watching a rerun of "Wings" on TV. It's little things like that stick in your memory years later when time and space conspire to tear you apart, because you realize that just being together meant as much or even more than big gestures like Christmas or birthday presents or what have you.
The other message might not have been intended, but really when the book gets to the second act it seems like someone should be wearing a sandwich boards and shouting, "Repent, ye sinners, ye relentless consumers worshiping the false idol of Commercialism!" Because think about it, the Zillers go from idyllic Wisconsin to California, that hotbed of commercialism and phoniness best exemplified by Hollywood, and live well beyond their means in an attempt to accumulate more wealth. Then, as if in retribution, all this bad stuff happens to them. Maybe I'm overthinking this point.
Despite the problems I've mentioned, the book was interesting enough to keep me moving forward. Puchner's writing is sharp and witty, though again it's not going to make you forget about DeLillo or Roth. Parts of it in the second and third act drag a little and really the story ends with more of a whimper than a bang.
Still, I'd recommend it as a decent enough read that should remind you of the value of family and perhaps the evils of commercialism.
That is all.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2010
Dismal story of one family's downward spiral during the 1980s in the dusty, dreary outskirts of LA. The first half of the book is a broken American Dream, teenagers and parents all angsty and desperate ~ but it's the horrific plot twist that drives the second half of the story into utter bleakness. But the bleakness isn't empty - there's a heart beating in every character and you know it. At times, the writing and vibe reminded me of T.C. Boyle; other times, Tom Wolfe.
The writing is a fantastic observation of the dreamy details that make up real life. The final, crazy plot twist towards the end really spirals everything into madness and yet plot-wise, makes perfect sense. The major plot lines, of course, all turn out to be metaphors for the lives of these characters, which is simply great writing.
I don't want to give away any of the story, though (other reviewers might not be so restrained). But if you're looking for an absorbing novel with a stark but heart-wrenching view of the world and are good with a melancholy vibe, this one may be it.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2011
This book will depress the living heck out of you, if you let it. There are moments of snickering, but for the most part, it's about a family falling apart at the seams and trying desperately to put it back together again. And it's not just falling apart -- it's fragmenting, then decaying, then pieces are falling off along the side of the road while one family member or other patiently gathers then all back up.
The book is told from the point of view of each of the family members, allowing you to really get into the hearts of problems, the depths of the dreams, and the end results of the tragedies. You have everything from a band called Toxic Shock Syndrome to father whose career has resorted to selling knives in trailer parts to a son who runs away and ends up smack in the middle of them craziest Dead Head concert followers I've ever heard of.
No, this isn't a knee-slapper, but it IS worth reading.