California Dreaming

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Eric Puchner’s first novel exposes the faultlines and frustrations beneath the shining American dream.

A boom economy may be only a sometime reality, but it’s a perennial fixture of the American imagination, in which prosperity is inextricably linked to the middle-class dream of happiness. There are all kinds of fallout for being in the grip of this illusion, which powers Eric Puchner’s gut-wrenching novel Model Home. Set in the mid-1980s at the height of the Reagan era (a mirror for the Bush era we’ve all endured), the novel tells the story of Camille and Warren Ziller and their three kids. The family has moved from Wisconsin to Southern California so Warren can pursue a real-estate windfall, and the novel opens as this dream has begun to crumble.

Warren has built a housing development in the desert, on the risky assumption that suburbia will keep expanding; the development turns out to be located close to a construction site for an industrial waste dump. Warren’s car has been repossessed, his credit cards rescinded—though he’s not above trying to sell houses to unsuspecting customers, his project is in ruins and he has yet to admit the truth to his family. Before the novel closes, worse disasters will befall all of them.

Puchner has impressive credentials as a writer. He’s a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford and his short story collection, 2005’s Music through the Floor, was deservedly praised for both skillful storytelling and fluent style. In Model Home, his first novel, Puchner so often gets things just right. Like the Zillers’ dream of prosperity, Puchner’s story splinters as it’s told from the perspectives of various family members, so that a reader is privy to all the missed connections. Puchner knows how to bring home the ache, to let us feel with the characters that connection is only just barely out of reach. Warren, nostalgic for their former life in Wisconsin, recalls that “the house was a minefield of shoes, and he could identify his children by the creaks they made in the floor above him.”

The best characters in this novel are the three kids: Dustin, the family’s golden child, who’s just about to leave for college; Lyle, a sixteen-year-old girl; and Jonas, age 11. Lyle wholeheartedly rejects the “Golden State” mentality (which she terms “a fascist condition”), and she counters her mother’s chirpiness by making lists of things she hates, which include “people who call old women ‘cute’… volleyball… people who use the term ‘110%’… people who order in Spanish at Mexican restaurants,” and “anyone who says the sentence: And WHO do we have here?” You gotta love her. Jonas, the youngest child, wouldn’t fit in anywhere: He’s obsessed with death and disaster, dresses in orange from head to toe, and picks the raisins out of his cereal only so he can sprinkle them back on.

But it’s Dustin, the eldest, who’s at the heart of Model Home. Everything about him is marked by ease—his charm, good looks, bright future, his picture-perfect girlfriend, Kira. Even his dabbling with a rock band seems like playacting at rebellion, yet Dustin is drawn to “freaks” and “outsiders,” at some gut level suspicious of the charmed life he’s leading. One of the pleasures of this novel is Puchner’s eye for detail: as Dustin walks on the beach, we’re told that “he loved, when he walked, the way the sand fleas rose in front of his feet before he stepped, psychically attuned to his stride, as if there were an invisible person walking in front of him.” What’s so nice about such details is that they not only convey physical reality with heightened attentiveness, they offer rich characterization—of the whole family, it’s only Dustin who steps into the Southern California dream with ease—and even foreshadowing, as that “invisible person” stands for a self that Dustin isn’t ready to acknowledge.

When Kira’s fifteen-year-old sister, Taz, enters the scene, less attractive than Kira, weirdly dressed, with scabby ears she compulsively picks at, Dustin falls for her, desperate to counter her cynical, mocking view of him. Puchner portrays these two kids not as spoiled or insulated, but as vulnerable to something less than genuine in their middle-class world. Their compelling attraction to each other is completely convincing.

At first glance, the Ziller family’s fissures seem pretty ordinary, but the deepest fissures lie within the parents, both of whom are inexplicably unsatisfied with their perfect life and even with their children. Warren, losing his grip as financial disaster worsens by the day, is desperate for his oldest son’s love, and ends up breaking and entering in an effort to help Dustin out of a jam. When he’s caught and arrested, he confesses his financial problems to his wife, and the family takes off on a camping trip, a last stab at anything like normalcy. On their return, Dustin is devastatingly injured in an accident the family believes—mistakenly—was caused by Jonas.

In the wake of the accident, the family’s disintegration accelerates. Warren’s relationship with his wife begins to evaporate—Warren mired in grief over his son’s tragedy, Camille wishing she could have some space in which to feel happy. Dustin endures excruciating physical suffering and a profound emotional desolation, and when he admits to Lyle that he hates everyone now—that he can’t overcome his “glitch”—she feels ashamed of “those lists she’d kept of people she’d hated.” Faced with the ruins of her brother’s life, she can’t feel compassion for her own ordinary flaws and feels guilty for wanting to escape to college. Yet she’s determined to do it. Jonas believes they all hate him for causing the accident, and will eventually put himself, too, at terrible risk, in a tense sequence that provides the novel’s climax.

Trauma has a searing power of erasure, and at his best Eric Puchner lets us witness this happening to his characters and grieve with them. He’s better at conveying this trauma’s effect on the three Ziller children than on their parents—Camille is the novel’s least convincing character, and it’s hard to see what connections the author wants to make between Warren’s morally flawed dream and the horrific ordeal the family undergoes, between Jonas’s “born” misfit status and the one brutally imposed on his brother. Terrible things can happen at random—and Model Home deliberately stresses this—but sometimes those events are so overwhelming it’s difficult for a fiction writer to carve out the necessary space for readers to consider how character is fate, to perceive what choice is left to characters and whether those choices can count for much.

But what a challenge for a writer to set for himself. In the closing section of Model Home, the very small degrees by which each main character tries to negotiate a lost faith in wholeness are finely drawn, and Puchner makes us feel how much those small degrees matter in the face of despair and irretrievable loss.

Catherine Brady is the author of three story collections, most recently, The Mechanics of Falling, recipient of the Northern California Book Award for Fiction. She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. More from this author →