Family love flickers capriciously throughout this fine domestic drama, which runs the gamut from hilarious to harrowing.
Developer Warren Ziller’s first big mistake was to uproot his family from their happy Wisconsin home and move them to a too-expensive house in a lush Los Angeles suburb. He’s been told he can make a killing in California real estate, so he rushes to build in the desert without knowing about a planned sludge dump—his second big mistake. In the summer of 1985, facing bankruptcy, he hasn’t sold a single property. His sweetly virtuous wife Camille makes educational videos; handsome oldest son Dustin surfs and leads a punk band; daughter Lyle is smart and misanthropic; 11-year-old Jonas is strange and lonely. All of them are oblivious to their impending doom as they perform “the slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville of being a Ziller.” Vaudeville is right: There are many laugh-out-loud moments, among them a particularly hilarious scene in which Lyle, drunk on tequila, serves some outraged customers at an ice-cream parlor. More serious developments include Lyle gleefully losing her virginity to the Mexican gatekeeper on their estate and Dustin having bravado sex with the disturbed sister of his less seducible girlfriend. Everything changes at the midpoint, when a gas explosion destroys their home and Dustin is badly burned. Family solidarity reigns supreme during the Zillers’ two-month vigil at the hospital, but it’s a different story when, with painful irony, they find themselves living next to the sludge dump. Another crisis erupts when Jonas runs away, but even in these dark times, humor keeps bubbling up. The inventive author maintains a swirl of action while encouraging us to ponder some fundamentals. What holds a family together: memories, rituals, crises? And how do parents guard against favoring one child over another?
A wild first novel that amply confirms the promise of Puchner’s story collection, Music Through the Floor (2005).