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All This Could Be Yours

Review

All This Could Be Yours

Imagine for a moment that a 73-year-old man resembling Donald Trump has a heart attack and is in the hospital, dying. Imagine further that one can get inside the heads of his innermost circle --- his wife, ex-wives, mistresses, kids and grandkids --- not to mention a few all-but-forgotten people in his universe: a golf caddy, a waiter at a Florida resort, a hospital orderly.

That is the effect of ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS, the new and brilliant novel by Jami Attenberg. She’s fond of hard-to-like subjects --- obesity in THE MIDDLESTEINS, single womanhood in ALL GROWN UP --- and here she serves up death with a dose of exquisitely articulated pain and dark humor. The setting is the sweltering, Katrina-scarred city of New Orleans, Attenberg’s adopted home, in August (“Wake up, it’s hot. All day, hot. Nighttime, it feels cooler, but it’s a lie; it’s still hot. And wet”). The soundtrack is a succession of acerbic, tightly wound, mostly well-defended voices.

There isn’t a lot of grief as such in the novel, given that the guy whose heart is giving out, real-estate developer Victor Tuchman, is an unrepentant crook and a cruel, womanizing, abusive jerk (“A perfect f---ing monster,” his wife calls him). The members of his family are mourning themselves more than him.

"...an intimate portrait of a wounded family.... Attenberg’s stylish prose is a pleasure, as is her idea for the book’s final section, a kind of coda called EVERYTHING AFTER."

They have a lot to mourn. During the single day that frames the novel, we become acquainted with the main characters, all both literally and figuratively damaged: Victor’s wife, Barbra (cold, obsessive); his daughter, Alex (angry, truth-seeking); his sad, betrayed son, Gary, who doesn’t even show up at his father’s deathbed; and Gary’s bewildered, self-loathing wife, Twyla. There are also fleeting appearances by his teenage granddaughters, Sadie and Avery.

Through flashbacks, readers can piece together the whats and whys of Victor’s life, but they’re drawn back to the present by the deathbed vigil. Barbra paces the hospital halls (counting steps and calories is her passion: “Fitness above all, or at least certainly above death”). Alex, after vain attempts to forgive her father, finds herself wandering through the city, drinking, picking up a guy. Twyla reads the Bible and browses makeup in CVS, tormented by a dirty secret that alters her whole relationship to the Tuchmans. Gary, on the West Coast, goes hiking, gets a massage and repeatedly misses his flight to New Orleans.

ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS --- the title is clearly ironic --- is an intimate portrait of a wounded family. Intimate, but not small, because Attenberg frequently slips in the voices of non-Tuchman characters: sometimes introducing new points of view for a few paragraphs at the end of a chapter, sometimes giving them a chapter of their own. Many of them represent the ordinary, unsung individuals who are the bedrock of New Orleans: the EMS guy who comes to get Victor after his heart attack, a stroke victim/boat builder in the hospital, a streetcar driver, a ticket taker on the ferry.

Instead of being confined to the privileged, tortured world of the Tuchmans, the story thus opens up to take on the entire city and its denizens, the pre-Katrina old-timers as well as those who came later. Attenberg, who moved from New York City to New Orleans five years ago, brings a newcomer’s enthusiasm as well as the meticulous observational eye of an outsider to her evocation of the city. “Things to do in New Orleans,” Alex thinks, playing Sarcastic Tourist. “Drink, eat, drink, eat, jazz. The Mississippi. Cemeteries and ghosts. Alligators.”

Quite late in the book, there’s a surprising, longish chapter from the perspective of a woman with no apparent connection to Victor. A native New Orleanian who is black, Sharon is a kind of anti-Tuchman, a foil for the scarred, brittle clan: able to find grace in the way she relates to her surroundings, her parents, her profession. Eventually we discover how she is linked to Victor as well as to the other working people who have been an intermittent presence in earlier chapters. “We power the city. We are the bodies, we are the labor,” she says, a hymn of praise. Sharon brings the book full circle, drawing together many of its big themes: morality, mortality, family.

This is a fascinating novel, yet one of its strengths --- a sharp, eloquent omniscient narrator who fills us in on not only the family’s past, but what will happen years after Victor’s death --- may also be a flaw. Attenberg’s voice doesn’t disappear into her characters; it calls attention to itself, like a skillful raconteur who can’t resist the bon mot. Just a sampling: “It’s a wonder the world didn’t collapse daily from the weight of men’s egos.” “He felt his heart quickly encircle with gold.” “[S]he revved her pristine engine, put it in gear, tight as a wire, and sped off, thinking, This must be what it feels like to have a penis.” “She spent half her life charging things, or looking for places to charge things, or wondering why the charge wouldn’t stay.” “She bent her head and prayed for her daughter to be safe, for her mother to move on someday, and for her father to just die already.”

It’s witty and sad and incredibly smart, this voice, but in my view it gives the book a certain coolness, a distancing from the characters’ anguish. Sometimes it seems to belong to a person who uses humor and intellect as a defense against going deeper.

Still, Attenberg’s stylish prose is a pleasure, as is her idea for the book’s final section, a kind of coda called EVERYTHING AFTER. It is satisfying to see Victor get the burial he deserves; to see Barbra and Alex and Twyla move on, in their fashion (Gary, not so much); and the two granddaughters find their own way to deal with the Tuchman legacy. In an intriguing last scene, set some years in the future --- Sadie and Avery are now young women --- they sort through their grandmother’s jewelry, “imagining what it must have been like to be Barbra, a woman in love with a man like that.”

Yep, that’s the crux of it: how men treat women (with the exception of Gary, badly) and why we’re seduced by them anyway. But the women in this story aren’t just victimized ninnies, and the men aren’t just turpitudinous. Attenberg makes us understand Victor’s nasty allure --- and understand, too, the subtle and not-so-subtle deals that his wife and descendants have made in order to survive a life with him in it.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on November 1, 2019

All This Could Be Yours
by Jami Attenberg

  • Publication Date: October 22, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0544824253
  • ISBN-13: 9780544824256