All This Could be Yours by Jami Attenberg (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99)
Victor Tuchman has made his money — abundant dirty money — developing real estate. No small time ganoff, he is a “master of bad capitalism”, a big, brash, boastful Jewish American who beats his wife Barbra and buys her off with brand-new furniture every couple of years.
“An angry man and an ugly man,” Victor has, for most of his life, dodged the consequences of devious deals and sexual entitlement. But now he’s old, disgraced (though his children aren’t altogether in the picture) and, as All This Could be Yours opens, he is dying of a cardiac arrest.
In this, her sixth novel, Jami Attenberg, doyenne of fictional family dysfunction, explores the figurative attacks of the heart suffered by Victor’s wife, children and grandchildren. They visit (or alternatively shun) his New Orleans hospital bedside, reflecting on the ruin he’s wreaked. Daughter Alex, a clever lawyer, presses her mother finally to disclose the long-held secrets of their marriage. Barbra resists, distracting herself by racking up her fitness step-count along the hospital corridors.
"Forgive your father now," she urges her daughter. Alex, guiltily aware that Victor’s ill-gotten gains have financed her fine education, tells her unresponsive father exactly what she will forgive — his physical abuse, well, yes, but his leery gaze, “his impressions of her body, the bodies of other women,” not so much. Son Gary stays stubbornly away, his estranged wife Twyla unaccountably weeping as if she’d ever even liked her in-laws.
More subtly and without the outrageously comedic barbs of her best-known novel, The Middlesteins, Attenberg draws us into the singular circle of hell that the Tuchmans occupy. It is uncomfortably realistic. In recent times, we’ve read a thing or two in the press about the Tuchman type. We may have paused to wonder how the real-life Victors of this world deny conscience and appoint themselves heroes of what the rest of the world clearly deems criminal.
Why would a woman enter, never mind prolong, a toxic marriage so damaging to her children and to her own self-respect? Attenberg’s portrayal of Barbra as a tempted, materialistic victim of her unliberated age, is perfectly believable — daughter of a drunk, she met Victor at a shivah. She saw that he was “dangerous as hell” but it was that, plus a dream house (so far from the ordinary young wife’s starter home) which entrapped her.
Victor, in turn, saw her as the “grand prize”. He had won her, he thought, “like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley”. When, once married, he knocked her about, she took it as a token that, at least, despite his long absences from home, he still thought about her. Theirs was a strange and complicated, unspoken contract. So she stayed, for the status, the furniture, the very dark desire and, above all, to protect their children from his suppressed violence and the secrets that may, in Victor’s last hours, finally be disinterred.
As author, Attenberg suggest that a wholesome life is not always a straightforward choice and suspends moral judgment for the reader to decide. She observes that “all of humanity is difficult… hard… every damn day, and we only get truly easy when we are dead… And even then…” she adds.
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer and therapist