September 2, 2012

A man’s humdrum life suddenly turns potent

“One Last Thing Before I Go” by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton, 324 pages, $26.95)

“One Last Thing Before I Go” by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton, 324 pages, $26.95)

Jonathan Tropper’s slick, manipulative new novel is about a lovable sad sack named Drew Silver. “You’ve got that kind of cuddly bad-boy thing going on, like you’re dangerous, but only a little bit, you know?” his daughter tells him.

Silver, who is called only Silver, perhaps because no one respects him enough to use his full name, has gone through life lousing things up.

“He has been an idiot for so long that sometimes he forgets what an idiot he is,” Tropper writes.

Idiot or not, Silver seems to be sort-of loved by everyone who knows him. So it seems mean-spirited to wish him dead.

But Tropper doesn’t give readers of “One Last Thing Before I Go” much choice. He contrives a life-threatening emergency that injects this otherwise weightless, jokey book with a big dose of pathos. Its whole plot hinges on whether Silver will live or die. Will his story really develop a serious side? Or will it tell the uplifting tale of how a hopeless loser finds love and learns to be a better man?

Let’s just say that the tinkling chimes of an ice-cream truck are heard during the story’s denouement. That Tropper’s books (this is his sixth) are most winning when they don’t try so hard. That this one, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, feels free to do both. And that his novels have become more and more like screenplays, filled with comedic shtick and easy emotions. A movie version of this one is in the works.

As “One Last Thing Before I Go” begins, Silver is immersed in — well, not much. He lives in an apartment building with a crew of other men whose ex-wives hate them. Their activities include slinging wisecracks, ogling much younger women and talking about guy topics, like cigars, which is the kind of riffing that is Tropper’s truly strong suit.

The same men who share this banter also tend to weep quietly about their wrecked lives. But, by and large, they are good company. And they serve as a Greek chorus for Silver once fate delivers him an amazingly coincidental one-two punch of medical developments. First his teenage daughter, Casey, decides to reconnect with him because she is pregnant. And then, out of the blue, 44-year-old Silver finds out that he has a damaged aorta and must undergo emergency surgery. He won’t do it. Silver escapes from the hospital and decides to make the most of whatever time he has left.

Casey’s pregnancy throws Silver back together with his ex-wife, Denise, who is about to remarry. Her fiance, Rich, happens to be the surgeon who diagnoses Silver’s mortal illness. And Silver happens to show up in the bridal salon just as Denise is trying on her wedding gown.

Silver never stopped loving Denise. And suddenly, miraculously, she is back in his life in some fashion. (The kind of fashion that will make Rich want to slug him.) This is more than enough karma for one story, but Tropper is just warming up. So this story finds room for Drew Silver’s parents to rally around their ailing son, and for him to start noticing how oddly detached he has allowed himself to become.

Being in the hospital got him back in touch with his feelings, he declares.

“And that’s why I don’t want to have that operation. I’d rather die right here, right in this spot, feeling this way, than live another 30 or 40 years like I’ve lived the last 10.”

Mission accomplished? Not quite: Tropper milks it even more. The whole crowd gathers around Silver on the dance floor and everybody belts out “Rest in Pieces,” which just happens to be the title of the one big song of Silver’s band. We never do find out why it was such a hit.

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