ALL THIS COULD BE YOURS by Jami Attenberg (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $26)
In the first pages of Jami Attenberg’s seventh novel, "All This Could Be Yours," 73-year-old New Orleans real estate developer Victor Tuchman — “he was an angry man, and he was an ugly man,” and he’s just had an unsatisfying experience with a bottle of Scotch and a cigar — has a heart attack. Ninety minutes later, his wife Barbra calls emergency medical services.
Despite the delay in receiving medical attention, Victor hangs on long enough to be admitted to the hospital. Barbra calls her daughter, Alex, in Chicago to report that her father is on his deathbed. Alex says she’ll come immediately. “Deeply, almost erotically, she was stirred.”
Alex phones her brother, Gary, who lives in New Orleans, but is currently in California. “She was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded nearly joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate but he didn’t.” Gary buys a plane ticket, but ends up getting high and collapsing on his bed rather than leaving for the airport.
OK, that’s three out of three. Nobody in the immediate Tuchman family is even conflicted about the death of their patriarch — they just want him gone. The remainder of novel, which plays out over the course of the last day of Victor's life, with extended flashbacks, makes it abundantly clear why. And once it’s plenty bad enough, there’s more.
Along the way, we’ll spend time with Gary’s wife, Twyla; her daughter, Avery; and her best friend, Sierra; Alex’s daughter, Sadie; and the EMS technician, Corey, and his maybe-girlfriend, Sharon. Some we visit just for a moment: an old man in a wheelchair on the same hospital floor as Victor, a sales clerk who sells Twyla makeup in a CVS. This kaleidoscope of characters broadens the novel’s focus so that it’s not all about the evil of Victor Tuchman. I’m sure the characters would agree — who wants to read a whole book about that creep?
Her secondary cast gives Attenberg a chance to dwell on other aspects of human nature, opportunities for humor, and more access to the New Orleans setting. The Tuchmans are recent transplants from Connecticut, living in a “quaint condominium complex in the Garden District,” but other characters have deeper roots in the city, including experience with Hurriance Katrina and recovery. The only mention of Mardi Gras is a single strand of beads caught in a tree.
Attenberg is on a roll. Her last book, "All Grown Up," about a happily single woman in New York, was my favorite of her novels, and now "All This Could Be Yours" has nabbed its title. Its combination of ambitious scope and economical treatment, its spirit of unsentimental generosity, recall the divine Grace Paley, a comparison Attenberg has inspired more than once.
A signature moment: Alex and her mother are driving to the hospital. Alex is begging her mother for the whole ugly truth about her father, and her mother is resisting, when a car ahead of them stops short. As Alex slams on the brakes, each women throws her arm out to protect the other, and they sit like that for a moment, hands outstretched.
"'That was a close one,' said Alex.
"'Not close enough,' said her mother, and they both laughed, darkly, in that doomed Tuchman way."
Like a little chili pepper in the chocolate, that particular kind of dark laughter is Attenberg’s secret ingredient.