It is safe again to read Model Home, a slyly funny yet tragic novel about the housing boom—and, ultimately, an intimate portrait of a California family that is counted as collateral damage to the housing bust. Written by Eric Puchner, a recipient both of the coveted Pushcart Prize for short fiction and of an esteemed Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the novel, not surprisingly, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award back in 2010 when it was released. Now, with the housing market ickiness all behind us (right?), there should be enough comfortable distance from the economic woes and very real emotions in this book to fully enjoy its comic dimensions.
Moreover, Puchner wisely sets the story in a faraway yet unsettlingly familiar land—the housing California boom-and-bust of the '80s, a place and era removed with enough distance to lampoon for its stylishly torn jeans, anachronistic technology and awkward Charlie Sheen "Wall Street"-esque ambitions, as to not cause readers too much discomfort. Although, truth told, the between-the-lines accusations about greed and fool-headed real estate investments may hit rather close to, well, home.
The first chapter sets the tone for the book: A contemporary Willie Loman character, Warren Ziller, has relocated his family from an idyllic Wisconsin life to Southern California in an attempt to ride a financial wave by investing in a subdivision. That plan hasn't gone so well, but Warren hasn't told his family yet, even though the car has recently been repossessed. Instead of sharing the truth, Warren simply has explained that the family car was stolen. But what's most telling and humorous is no one seems to care; they are so involved in their own imploding California dreams.
Interestingly, Puchner knows a thing or two about swindlers. In a raw and candid essay, he writes in GQ Magazine about his dad, who was a California con man; decidedly more sinister (and briefly successful) than the main character, but still familiar enough for the author to pull very real emotions into this fine work of fiction. Those details—and the unsettling roller coaster riches-to-rags story—play out keenly; if not the exact arc of Puckner's own childhood, certainly he has imported the underlying feelings of distrust and bottomed-out hope that buffet the fictitious Ziller family.
But while Model Home is poignant and tragic—and somewhat rough with its characters—its wry comic tone doesn't allow the story to sink too far into depression.
On its own, the story is compelling—each chapter profiles one of the five family members' unraveling. Like the currently popular TV show "Breaking Bad," each character is likeable enough to salvage him or herself from his or her own rotten foibles.
It is also Puchner's observations, keen details and confident writing that uplift the story. He is, quite simply, a really great writer, both penning quick zingers, like when describing the blonde mom ("She was a Midwesterner in the way Blackbeard was a pirate: iconic to the species"), to much more detailed and involved passages that evoke the pain of lost adolescence and disillusionment. "Her dad squinted at the long-haired man fiddling with an antenna," Puchner writes, "his half-naked son telling him how to install it. What an odd thing a family was, Warren thought. The permutations, like patterns of a chess game, seemed endless."
(It should be noted, as an extra selling point, Model Home is also a music book, as Puchner had been a musician himself in college, and he pays particularly close attention to California's post-punk scene. Writing from the teenage Icarus-like son's perspective: "It wasn't until a week later, though, when Betsy played him a song on his Walkman, that Dustin knew they were going to hit if off. 'TV Eye,' by the Stooges. Dustin had never heard such music: It was like someone had smashed Elvis's face with a hammer and told him to sing it off. It was a primate thing, sound more than song, and it made you as cool as it was.")
Model Home is a wonderful end-of-summer read and, even though a story about a housing (and family) boom-bust in a time long, long ago, it is also a perfect story to bookend Bend's most recent economic woes.