MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
If popular culture has decided that suburban housewives are desperate, what about their husbands? Guys obsessed with keeping the lawns manicured and steaks grilled. Paula Whyman is a writer and housewife, although she's not desperate, and she has been thinking about those guys for our series, "Three Books." She recommends these three novels.
BLOCK: People are always talking about desperate housewives. But as someone who's a stay-at-home mom, when I pick up a book, I don't always want a primer on my own thoughts. I like to know what men are thinking. These three books are my passports into the mind and soul of the desperate suburban man.
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. Cal provides his family with new cars and fancy vacations, but he doesn't have a clue about their emotional needs. His wife thinks feelings should be hidden. Their son, who's recovering from a suicide attempt, needs to express his feelings in order to heal. Mother and son clash and Cal, the father, is caught in the middle. But there is hope. His attempts to connect with his son are bumbling at times, but that makes him endearing and real.
Frank Bascombe is also endearing and real. He's the hero of Richard Ford's "Independence Day." A realtor, Frank 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 preppie, 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 the guy's obscene bike shorts. Bascombe may screw up almost relationship, but he's fun to watch. His self-deprecating wit and easygoing nature makes me want to stick around, even when his wife doesn't.
So do these 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 his tortured school days. He's ridiculed by teachers and beaten by bullies. "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.
BLOCK: Paula Whyman lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She was recommending "Ordinary People" by Judith Guest, "Independence Day" by Richard Ford, and "Project X" by Jim Shepard. If you are desperate for more book recommendations plus reviews and author readings, you can visit the book section of our Web site, npr.org.
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