Angst Lurks Behind The Lawn Mower

Desperate Suburban Men

"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

People are always talking about desperate housewives, but as a stay-at-home mom, I'm not interested in reading a primer on my own thoughts; I'd much rather know what the men of the house are thinking.

For that, I have to head to the library. These three books are my passport into the elusive minds — and conflicted souls — of desperate suburban men.

'Ordinary People'

cover of Judith Guest's 'Ordinary People'
Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, paperback, 272 pages

Let's start with Judith Guest's Ordinary People. You might remember the distant, cold mother from the movie, but in the book, the center of this troubled family is really the father, Cal Jarrett.

Though Cal provides his family with new cars and fancy vacations, he doesn't have a clue about their emotional needs. His wife thinks feelings should be hidden, while his son, who's recovering from a suicide attempt, needs to express his feelings in order to heal. Mother and son clash, and Cal is caught in the middle. Cal's struggle to keep his family together keeps me turning the pages. His attempts to connect with his son are bumbling at times, but that makes him endearing and real.

'Independence Day'

cover of Richard Ford's 'Independence Day'
Independence Day, by Richard Ford, paperback, 464 pages

Frank Bascombe, the hero of Richard Ford's Independence Day, is a funny, insightful tour guide to his New Jersey town, but he's not so competent when it comes to relationships. His ex-wife is marrying a rich preppy, and Frank's hopes for a reunion are "gone like a fart in a skillet." He's not doing so well with his teenage son, either — during a father-son trip, Frank abandons the boy to flirt with an innkeeper.

And then there's the realty business: Frank loves his work, but his latest client has rejected more than 40 houses. In his frustration, Frank gives a hilarious description of his client's obscene bike shorts. Bascombe may screw up almost every relationship, but he's fun to watch — his self-deprecating wit and easygoing nature make me want to stick around, even when his wife doesn't.

'Project X'

cover of Jim Shepherd's 'Project X'
Project X, by Jim Shepard, paperback, 176 pages

Do desperate suburban men start out as desperate teenage boys? If so, maybe they'll recognize Edwin Hanratty, the misfit at the center of Jim Shepard's Project X. In a voice full of humor, sadness and longing, Edwin leads us through tortured school days in which he's ridiculed by teachers and beaten by bullies.

Edwin's struggles go unnoticed, except when the adults get involved and make things worse. "No more malt shop for me," Edwin says sarcastically, when his father grounds him for a fight he didn't start. When Edwin can't take it anymore, he and his only friend plan a Columbine-style massacre. Will he really go through with it? Edwin's so likable and tragically misguided, I'm rooting for him right to the end.

They may not be the best companions in life, but on the page, these forlorn suburban men and their valiant, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking struggles keep me — a not-so-desperate housewife — fully absorbed in their angst.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Books Featured In This Story

Project X

by Jim Shepard

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Independence Day

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