A seventy-three-year old man lies on his death bed in a New Orleans hospital. Barbra, his long-suffering wife of 50 years, is waiting for their two children to arrive: their daughter Alex, a divorced lawyer living in Chicago, whom she is expects to forgive her father for his transgressions; and their son Gary who works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
Imagine the conventional literary or theatrical scene, and breathe in the thick, sticky pathos. The patriarch’s clan gathers around his broken body. Tubes hang from orifices. Rectangular monitors record beeps and dashes. There are tears, apologies, and confessions. Hints that frayed relationships can be repaired. Expressions of love and regret. The scent of hope and second chances mingling with the aroma of chrysanthemums.
Fortunately, all such scenes or emotional swellings have been completely expunged from Jami Attenberg’s fifth novel, All This Could Be Yours. Attenberg refuses to serve such sentimental tripe to her readers. Her novel revels in its subversion of our expectations of the death of this old, abusive man. His family rejects the idea of singing kumbaya around its prostrate patriarch.
Because they hate him.
This venal man has been knocked down by a heart attack, the result of a lifetime of whisky and women, cigars and criminal activity. His life is dominated by anger and physical abuse of his wife and children, a garage stuffed with porno magazines, and a reputation for slapping and sleeping with the women he has encountered.
Alex, the oldest child, represents the emotional centre of the novel. She has given up on her parents. She blames her mother for refusing to leave her father for all of the shit he has dumped on his family. She wants answers that explain her father’s activities, his extended absences, and his relationships with shady, underworld figures. She demands closure. The narrator dips into her thoughts: “Now, though she would never utter it to anyone, Alex couldn’t wait until her father died, so at last she could learn the truth about him.”
Gary, the younger sibling, also hates his father. He lives in Los Angeles and works in TV production and has recently become estranged from his life wife and daughter who remain in New Orleans. He learned nothing of value from his father except how not to treat women. He makes the following confession to his sister and explains why he won’t be returning for any funeral:
“[You’re] nothing like him. I know you. My sister, my friend. You’re not as bad as you think you are—you’re not bad at all. You’re a good person, I promise you. I know you. You’re good. Don’t worry about him anymore. You need to let yourself forget he ever existed. Because that’s what I plan on doing.”
All This Could Be Yours shows how an evil, angry patriarch destroyed a family. It unravels how each member was affected by his corrosive masculinity. More importantly, it also dramatises how his victims have survived. Two teenaged granddaughters who represent the family’s third generation are poised to thrive. They offer hope.
Set in New Orleans, Attenberg’s novel provides fleeting scraps of proletarian, prosaic exchanges with characters on the periphery of its action: cab drivers, bartenders, nurses in the hospital. Woven together, these interactions celebrate life on the streets of New Orleans. Such glimpses of humanity flesh out the city and its streets, its shops, and its weather.
Attenberg’s writing is acerbic, sharp, pointed: For example:
“[That] man’s penis [never] stayed put where it was supposed to be, instead living its life as a free-flying dilettante, a party penis, as if it were some sort of rich-kid celebrity DJ hitting new hot spots. . . .”
Any Cop?: The dead patriarch never gets a chance to present his side of the story. No chance to defend himself. That seems just. He’s been the boss for decades, and his legacy is the messy lives of his children. Time to silence him and his anger. I’ve even removed his name from this review. Time to close the casket lid and cover it with clumps of dirt. I slap this epitaph on his unmarked grave:
“He didn’t apologize to [his wife] then, or later, when he struck her in their bedroom. He didn’t need to apologize. He was the boss.”