The Book of Joe, by author Jonathan Tropper, has killer premise that should make all inspiring writers jealous. Joe, an author made famous by writing a book that tears apart his hometown, must return to be with his sick father. He must now contend with the truths he wrote about head on. What a hook!
This is where the jealousy ends. The Book of Joe is letdown by Tropper’s amateurish writing, careless pacing and unlikable characters. What was a concept that might have rivaled The Silver Linings Playbook is, quiet frankly, a mess.
The idea of this story is that Joe was wrong to write about his town the way he did, exaggerating the truth and making people look bad. Except, when we meet the people in his town, they all come across as jerks and losers. That makes sense in terms of how they would act to Joe but there’s never the other side of the coin. Everyone comes across as very one dimensional and I never believed they had much cause to be offended by how they were portrayed in Joe’s novel. Maybe that’s my natural disdain for small town drama, but I couldn’t care for any of these people, and I was never given reason to otherwise.
Joe’s realization of his wrong doing, the wrong doing I wasn’t invested in, comes way to quickly for a book like this. He states how much he hates the town and never looked back for the first couple of chapters but as soon as he enters city limits, his whole character changes. Suddenly, without much prodding or reason, Joe is navel gazing about how important his time here actually was, leaving very little room for growth.
There’s quite a bit of flashbacks, showing us the one summer that changed everything for Joe. The problem with these is that they actually revolve around Joe’s friends and the main character becomes a spectator. When Joe goes on and on about how that summer effected him, it’s weakened by the events we’re presented with. In fact, very little in the book actually needs Joe around. He’s a witness to important events but not a key component to them. Yes, he has girlfriend in his teen years, but I never understood what she saw in Joe.
Joe’s whinny, navel gazing attitude is rewarded with wisdom, closure and sex by those he left behind all those years ago. Everyone, including Joe’s ex-girlfriend Carly, gives this unlikable character the attention he craves but doesn’t deserve. There’s no challenges Joe has to overcome to grow and become a better person, everyone does it for him. Joe’s brother concedes, the high school coach apologizes, Carly kisses him, all of these things fix Joe but he doesn’t have to put in any of the work.
Every character, especially Joe, has an in-depth and analytical view of their psychological well-being and can express it at the drop of a hat. Subtlety is a non-resident of this town. Joe’s emotional journeys last all of a page and he moves quickly onto the next. In the end, very little closure is given. Joe’s book isn’t forgiven, Carly is willing to give him another shot, his family might be falling apart, but it doesn’t matter because he’s writing again. And the view on writing is the most flowery kind. It’s the type where everything simply “flows” and characters are “discovered” along the way. How books are written this way is beyond me, but maybe that’s how we end up with something like The Book of Joe.
It fails at being poetic, at being deep, it’s not funny or insightful and has nothing to say about small town living or guilt from past mistakes. What a waste of a great idea.