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Overview

Warren Ziller moved his family to California in search of a charmed life, and to all appearances, he found it: a gated community not far from the beach, amid the affluent splendor of Southern California in the 1980s. But his American dream has been rudely interrupted. Despite their affection for one another — the "slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville" they share at home — Warren; his wife, Camille; and their three children have veered into separate lives, as distant as satellites. Worst of all, Warren has squandered the family's money on a failing real estate venture.

As Warren desperately tries to conceal his mistake, his family begins to sow deceptions of their own. Camille attributes Warren's erratic behavior toan affair and plots her secret revenge; seventeen-year-old Dustin falls for his girlfriend's troubled younger sister; teen misanthrope Lyle begins sleeping with a security guard who works at the gatehouse; and eleven-year-old Jonas becomes strangely obsessed with a kidnapped girl.

When tragedy strikes, the Zillers are forced to move into one of the houses in Warren's abandoned development in the middle of the desert. Marooned in a less-than-model home, each must reckon with what's led them there and who's to blame — and whether they can summon the forgiveness needed to hold the family together. Subtly ambitious, brimming with the humor and unpredictability of life, Model Home delivers penetrating insights into the American family and into the imperfect ways we try to connect, from a writer "uncannily in tune with the heartbreak and absurdity of domestic life" (Los Angeles Times).

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Meet the Zillers – Warren, Camille, and their three kids – living the life in a Southern Californian gated community, the picture-perfect American family. Or so it seems. There’s Jonas, the youngest, who dresses entirely in orange and is oblivious to the endless trial of humiliation his behavior invites; Dustin, the smart and popular oldest, who’s lucky in love but takes it for granted until it’s too late; and Lyle, the sister in the middle, socially inept, painfully shy, and oddly anemic-looking against the West Coast canvas of tanned starlets and blue skies.

Married for 17 years, Warren is in real estate and Camille makes educational videos with titles like “Conception is FUNdamental.” They’re bright, busy, and determined, yet beneath all the bonhomie lurks a more troubling scenario. When Warren’s real-estate venture goes bust, the car, furniture, and home are all snatched away, and the Zillers are forced to own up to some painful truths. An affair, a tragic accident, and a runaway boy add to their growing estrangement. As they try to recapture what they thought was family intimacy, they only succeed in causing one another more pain.

In Model Home, Eric Bogosian’s acid tongue meets the social commentary of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Franzen set the bar high, but Puchner clears it with ease. With his first novel, he has penned a comic masterpiece of a family’s implosion that’s troubling, touching, and darkly hilarious.

Marisa Silver
Eric Puchner cannily trades on the very characteristics that have come to define a recognizable California "experience" in order to blast them apart, revealing the uncertainty and terror beneath the glossy postcard version we cling to and dismiss…Puchner is a tender, humane observer of family life, and his lithe prose deepens our understanding of his characters.
—The New York Times
Carolyn See
The Ziller family is utterly believable here. Little Jonas, the kid whom nobody loves, is the perfect example. It's left absolutely up in the air what's to become of him—or his brother, or sister or parents. Sure, if you work hard and don't screw up, you could succeed, except for the fact that everyone screws up mightily sometime. It's actually a miracle that any one of us stays alive from breakfast to lunch. There's a terrible shame involved if you fail in America. But that shame is universal. It clings to us like an invisible, sticky veil. That's what this estimable book is about.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Puchner’s heartrending first novel (after the collection Music Through the Floor) traces the gradual ruin of a family in the 1980s. By the time Warren Ziller’s car is repossessed—he tells the family it was stolen and tries to keep the family’s money woes a secret—he realizes he made a mistake in hauling his family from the Midwest to Southern California to get rich quick on real estate. Warren’s wife, Camille, suspects her husband’s squirrelly behaviour indicates he’s having an affair; 11-year-old son Jonas has developed strange obsessions; 16-year-old daughter Lyle is miserable and misanthropic; and college-bound son Dustin is a handsome surfer with punk rock dreams. The unhappy family’s annual camping trip inspires Warren to confess their dire financial straits, earning a momentary reprieve cut short by a natural gas explosion at their house that horribly burns Dustin. The Zillers move to one of Warren’s depressing model homes and nearly fall apart until a new crisis involving Jonas creates a tenuous unity. With careful attention to nuanced and fractured perspectives, Puchner teases a fragile beauty out of the loneliness that separates the members of this family. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Warren Ziller has bankrupted himself and his family in an unsuccessful real estate development in the California desert. When he confesses what he has done, his perfect nuclear family spirals out of control. A gas explosion at their own home forces the Zillers to live in one of the development's unsold houses, and family relations deteriorate until Jonas, the youngest son, runs away. His disappearance and eventual safe return jolts the family back to reality, allowing them to move on. VERDICT Pushcart Prize winner Puchner, a finalist for NYPL's Young Lions Award for his story collection, Music Through the Floor, mixes humor, pathos, tragedy, love, and the struggle for meaning in the convoluted folds of his first novel. Readers will feel the angst of teenage love, the frustration of plans gone wrong, and the heartbreak of the human condition. For anyone who likes fine writing on contemporary domestic crises.—Joanna M. Burkhardt, Ashaway, RI
Kirkus Reviews
Family love flickers capriciously throughout this fine domestic drama, which runs the gamut from hilarious to harrowing. Developer Warren Ziller's first big mistake was to uproot his family from their happy Wisconsin home and move them to a too-expensive house in a lush Los Angeles suburb. He's been told he can make a killing in California real estate, so he rushes to build in the desert without knowing about a planned sludge dump-his second big mistake. In the summer of 1985, facing bankruptcy, he hasn't sold a single property. His sweetly virtuous wife Camille makes educational videos; handsome oldest son Dustin surfs and leads a punk band; daughter Lyle is smart and misanthropic; 11-year-old Jonas is strange and lonely. All of them are oblivious to their impending doom as they perform "the slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville of being a Ziller." Vaudeville is right: There are many laugh-out-loud moments, among them a particularly hilarious scene in which Lyle, drunk on tequila, serves some outraged customers at an ice-cream parlor. More serious developments include Lyle gleefully losing her virginity to the Mexican gatekeeper on their estate and Dustin having bravado sex with the disturbed sister of his less seducible girlfriend. Everything changes at the midpoint, when a gas explosion destroys their home and Dustin is badly burned. Family solidarity reigns supreme during the Zillers' two-month vigil at the hospital, but it's a different story when, with painful irony, they find themselves living next to the sludge dump. Another crisis erupts when Jonas runs away, but even in these dark times, humor keeps bubbling up. The inventive author maintains a swirl of action while encouraging usto ponder some fundamentals. What holds a family together: memories, rituals, crises? And how do parents guard against favoring one child over another?A wild first novel that amply confirms the promise of Puchner's story collection, Music Through the Floor (2005).
Publishers Weekly
Puchner's darkly comic coming-of-age tale offers a complex array of takes on 1980s California: worshipful, acidic, and all points between. Warren and Camille Ziller and their three children have moved from the Midwest to Southern California in search of the blissful American dream, but find, instead, a kind of collective unraveling. Shuttling between parents and children, bedrooms and beaches, Puchner's novel is read by the charming David Colacci, who is attentive to the story's brutality, its pathos, and its stinging comedy. Colacci lazily ambles his way through, his lackadaisical tone belying the conscientiousness of his reading and the slowly spreading melancholy of Puchner's book. A Scribner hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 14). (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“The only conclusion to come to after reading this novel is that Eric Puchner is a massive talent…Each character is perfectly drawn and deeply interesting. Go read this book.” —McSweeney’s

“Puchner’s well-constructed tale of a house of pain built on a foundation of secrets echoes Updike and Easton Ellis.” —People magazine, 4 stars

“Puchner is an extraordinarily talented writer... a master of mood and tone, able to make moments of pure hilarity follow heartbreak with the seamlessness of real life.”

Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743270489
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 360

Meet the Author

Eric Puchner

Eric Puchner is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He has received a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. His short story collection, Music Through the Floor, was a finalist for the NY Public Library’s Young Lions Award. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Katharine Noel, and their children.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Two days after his car—an ’85 Chrysler LeBaron with leather seats and all-power accessories—vanished from the driveway, Warren Ziller crept past the expensive homes of his neighbors, trying to match his dog’s limp. Buggy Whip Lane was shrouded in a mist that blurred his glasses. It was June, month of foggy mornings; vines of bougainvillea climbed the telephone poles and hung like tinsel from the wires. Warren tugged at Mr. Leonard’s leash, trying to keep to the narrow horse trail skirting the road. The wood chips at his feet sent up a pleasing funk of manure. He passed the Hathaways’ and Wongs’ and Dunkirks’, the Temples’ and Starchilds’, each house white as a tooth, distinguished only by a lone cactus or bronze deer in the yard or surfboard tipped against the wall. There was something very appealing about these surfboards. They looked doomed and precarious but never seemed to fall over. He’d lived here three years and the sight of them still gave him a thrill. When he tried to define California to himself, to reckon the fathomless miles he’d traveled from Wisconsin, Warren always thought of these beautiful toys on the verge of collapse.

Mr. Leonard stopped along the trail to inspect a rock and began to sing to it. A high, sorrowful croon, as if he might coax the thing into a duet. The mutt was old and arthritic, but it had never occurred to Warren that his mind might deteriorate. As dogs went, he’d always been bright and resourceful, sniffing out lost shoes or figuring out how to open doors with his paws.

“Have you noticed anything funny about Mr. Leonard?” Warren asked when he got home. His children were sitting around the kitchen table together, most likely by accident. The house smelled of McDonald’s and bare feet. Mr. Leonard limped to his bowl and stared at his meager ration of kibbles.

“You mean aside from him singing to rocks?” Lyle said, clipping her toenails into an empty sneaker on the floor. The sneaker was presumably her own.

“You’ve noticed?”

“Any rock. He can’t resist.”

“Maybe someone gave him some LSD,” Jonas suggested.

“I don’t think so,” Warren said.

“Has he been jumping out of windows, thinking he can fly?”

Dustin scoffed. “That’s a myth.”

“Dogs can’t fly?” Lyle said, laying her clippers on the table.

Camille, his wife, looked up from the sink. “There’s nothing funny about it.”

“I think it’s inspiring,” Dustin said. “That he can find love so late in life.”

“In Vietnam,” Jonas said, “they kill dogs when they’re no longer useful and use them for food. There’s a dish called Dog Seven Ways.”

“Boys! That’s enough,” Camille said.

“Yeah,” Lyle said. “Mr. Leonard can hear you.”

The mutt caught his name and came limping over to the kitchen table, tail thumping.

“How do I love thee,” Dustin said, leaning to pet him. “Let me count the ways.”

Camille walked over to Mr. Leonard and bent down to stroke his head, then looked up at them accusingly. “I hope you remember this, what a laugh riot you’re having, when you’re singing to rocks.”

A guilty hush came over the table. In the silence, Warren had a chance to take in the spectacle of his children: Dustin, his college-bound son, shirtless as usual and eating an Egg McMuffin he must have picked up on the way home from surfing, preparing for another deafening day of band practice in the garage; Lyle, his redheaded, misanthropic daughter, sixteen years old and wearing a T-shirt with DEATH TO SANDWICHES stenciled on the front, her latest protest against corporate advertising; Jonas, eleven and haunted by death . . . what could he say about Jonas? Every morning he poured granola in his bowl and then spent five minutes picking out all the raisins and dates, only to sprinkle them back on top. He liked to know where they were so “they wouldn’t surprise him.” Today he was wearing an orange windbreaker over a matching orange shirt. Warren felt something brush his heart, a draft of despair. He glanced under the table: orange corduroys, and—glaring conspicuously above Jonas’s Top-Siders—coral-colored socks.

“Jonas, you’re dressed entirely in orange.”

Jonas nodded.

“He’s exercising his individuality,” Lyle said.

Dustin clapped Jonas on the back. “I admire you for making the rest of us seem normal.”

Warren watched his orange son picking raisins from his cereal. He had enough on his mind already without worrying about the boy’s mental health. “You look like a carrot.”

“Thank you,” Jonas said politely.

Warren frowned. He picked up the front page of the newspaper and was confronted with Mandy Rogers, the mentally retarded girl who’d disappeared from school. It had been two weeks since she went missing. There were signs hanging all over town: the flat, porpoisey face grinning at you from under a cowboy hat. Eerie and inescapable. Warren drove by the Rogerses’ house, its squadron of news vans, on the way to his office every day.

“I wish they’d just find that poor girl’s body,” he said.

“You don’t know she’s dead,” Camille said. “I wish you wouldn’t go putting ideas in their heads.”

“What do you think? She just wandered off?”

“Yeah, Mom,” Lyle said. “She’s waiting at the Lost and Found?”

“Maybe it’s the same guy who stole the Chrysler,” Dustin said.

“I doubt it. Car thieves don’t generally abduct people.”

Warren said this without batting an eye. There were surfboards leaning undisturbed in all their neighbors’ yards, yet Warren’s family had believed him when he’d said the Chrysler was stolen. It dismayed him, how easy it had been. A fake call to the police, a trip downtown to file a report. (The truth was he’d spent the afternoon at the office.) He’d smoothed any wrinkles of doubt by telling them there were bands of crooks who specialized in gated communities, knowing that people left their keys in the car. “Sitting ducks,” he’d called the families of Herradura Estates.

In truth, Warren had been in denial about the Chrysler. He’d hoped—despite the fact that he hadn’t made a payment in six months, had ignored the bill collector’s increasingly terse and belligerent notices—that the lender might just forget the whole business. Instead the men had come at night, while Warren was asleep. He’d gone out to the driveway with Mr. Leonard and found a dark drool of oil where his car had been. And the stain was only a herald of things to come. There was the furniture, the new Maytag washer, the house itself.

Dustin finished his breakfast, licking some grease that had run down his wrist. It was such a boyish gesture, so casually innocent, that the taste of fear eased back down Warren’s throat. He would protect this innocence at all costs. If that meant lying to his family until he found a way out of this mess, so be it.

“How are the Deadbeats?” he asked Dustin, who’d gotten up to wash his hands in the sink. Warren loved to sit in the garage while they practiced, listening to their brain-throbbing music.

“We’re not called that anymore.”

“You’re not?”

“It’s a dumb name,” Dustin said. “We’re trying to think of a better one.”

He turned his back to Warren, searching for something in the fridge. Warren was very familiar with this back. He had whole conversations with it. It was a strong back, beautiful in its gentle slopes and mesas: he’d gotten to know it the way you get to know a favorite view or painting. A back, even a silent one, was better than nothing. Still, there was a certain amount of faith involved: you had to trust it was listening, hunched over a guitar or a surfboard as if you weren’t even there.

His wife had disappeared from the kitchen. Warren got up from his stool at the counter and went to find her. The hallway, like their room itself, was decorated with shell sculptures and turd-colored macramé things and paintings not unlike the splotch of oil staining the driveway. Camille had bought them all at a store called Creativity Unleashed, which sold art by developmentally disabled people. Mandy Rogers’s disappearance had inspired her to invest in heroically unattractive art. She’d wanted to hang it all over the house, but the kids had refused to adorn their walls with “retard paintings” and the bulk had ended up in their bedroom. When Warren objected, wondering if some types of creativity weren’t better off leashed, Camille had called him hardhearted. He couldn’t tell her it was the waste of money that frightened him.

Now he found his wife in the bathroom, tugging at her tennis skirt instead of getting dressed for work. He had to remind himself it was Saturday. Camille made educational videos for the public school system, and Warren often felt guilty for not taking it as seriously as she did. It was her goodness—her belief in higher rewards than money—that he’d always been attracted to.

“Where did Jonas get orange socks?” he asked, watching her put on some lipstick.

“He picked them out at Nordstrom’s,” Camille said.

“You bought them for him?”

“How was I supposed to know he’d dress up like that?”

Warren sat on the bed to untie his sneakers. “Given the choice between a slow kid and a genius who dresses like a carrot, I might have chosen the former.”

“Any word from the police?” she asked.

“What?”

“About the Chrysler! Did they learn anything?”

Warren shook his head. “Probably scattered all over the state by now,” he said.

Thankfully, Camille didn’t seem to question this and began dabbing her lips with a Kleenex. A little pink T, like a cat’s nose, stained the middle. She was still lovely: blond hair and the sort of wholesome, cheerleadery face, freckled and wide-eyed and slightly bucktoothed, that caused people to smile at her from their cars. She was a Midwesterner in the way Blackbeard was a pirate: iconic to the species. Even when she was angry at Warren she seemed hopelessly preppy, her face a cardigan pink. He wanted to tell her that his project in the desert—for which he’d sacrificed everything, his family’s own future—was a disaster. Everything they had was in peril. If she knew, they could face down the debt collectors—the angry phone calls and investors—together. It would be like before they were married, when Warren was in law school in Chicago and they were living in a run-down studio in Rogers Park, so poor they’d been forced to eat a moose Camille’s brother had shot in Michigan. They’d survived on ground moose meat all winter, using Hamburger Helper to mask the flavor. Moose Helper, they’d called it, laughing at the TV commercials they’d thought up as a joke.

Warren got up from the bed and kissed Camille’s neck, holding the faint bulges that had recently formed at her waist. She turned around in surprise.

“Camille . . .”

The surprise on her face melted to concern. “What is it?”

“There’s something . . .”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. Last week, making love, she’d said something to him strange and terrible, a confession of despair. I want to die. Through the bedroom window, he could see Dustin waxing his surfboard in the backyard, kneeling on the lawn while Jonas practiced his fencing moves. The sun had broken through the mist, lighting the persimmon tree near the garden into a blaze of orange fruit. Beneath it, lunging in the sunlight, his fruit-colored son looked weirdly beautiful.

“Mr. Leonard,” Warren said quietly. “Maybe it’s time we had him looked at.”

© 2010 Eric Puchner

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First Chapter

CHAPTER 1
Two days after his car -- an '85 Chrysler LeBaron with leather seats and all-power accessories -- vanished from the driveway, Warren Ziller crept past the expensive homes of his neighbors, trying to match his dog's limp. Buggy Whip Lane was shrouded in a mist that blurred his glasses. It was June, month of foggy mornings; vines of bougainvillea climbed the telephone poles and hung like tinsel from the wires. Warren tugged at Mr. Leonard's leash, trying to keep to the narrow horse trail skirting the road. The wood chips at his feet sent up a pleasing funk of manure. He passed the Hathaways' and Wongs' and Dunkirks', the Temples' and Starchilds', each house white as a tooth, distinguished only by a lone cactus or bronze deer in the yard or surfboard tipped against the wall. There was something very appealing about these surfboards. They looked doomed and precarious but never seemed to fall over. He'd lived here three years and the sight of them still gave him a thrill. When he tried to define California to himself, to reckon the fathomless miles he'd traveled from Wisconsin, Warren always thought of these beautiful toys on the verge of collapse.Mr. Leonard stopped along the trail to inspect a rock and began to sing to it. A high, sorrowful croon, as if he might coax the thing into a duet. The mutt was old and arthritic, but it had never occurred to Warren that his mind might deteriorate. As dogs went, he'd always been bright and resourceful, sniffing out lost shoes or figuring out how to open doors with his paws."Have you noticed anything funny about Mr. Leonard?" Warren asked when he got home. His children were sitting around the kitchen table together, most likely by accident. The house smelled of McDonald's and bare feet. Mr. Leonard limped to his bowl and stared at his meager ration of kibbles."You mean aside from him singing to rocks?" Lyle said, clipping her toenails into an empty sneaker on the floor. The sneaker was presumably her own."You've noticed?""Any rock. He can't resist.""Maybe someone gave him some LSD," Jonas suggested."I don't think so," Warren said."Has he been jumping out of windows, thinking he can fly?"Dustin scoffed. "That's a myth.""Dogs can't fly?" Lyle said, laying her clippers on the table.Camille, his wife, looked up from the sink. "There's nothing funny about it.""I think it's inspiring," Dustin said. "That he can find love so late in life.""In Vietnam," Jonas said, "they kill dogs when they're no longer useful and use them for food. There's a dish called Dog Seven Ways.""Boys! That's enough," Camille said."Yeah," Lyle said. "Mr. Leonard can hear you."The mutt caught his name and came limping over to the kitchen table, tail thumping."How do I love thee," Dustin said, leaning to pet him. "Let me count the ways."Camille walked over to Mr. Leonard and bent down to stroke his head, then looked up at them accusingly. "I hope you remember this, what a laugh riot you're having, when you're singing to rocks."A guilty hush came over the table. In the silence, Warren had a chance to take in the spectacle of his children: Dustin, his college-bound son, shirtless as usual and eating an Egg McMuffin he must have picked up on the way home from surfing, preparing for another deafening day of band practice in the garage; Lyle, his redheaded, misanthropic daughter, sixteen years old and wearing a T-shirt with DEATH TO SANDWICHES stenciled on the front, her latest protest against corporate advertising; Jonas, eleven and haunted by death . . . what could he say about Jonas? Every morning he poured granola in his bowl and then spent five minutes picking out all the raisins and dates, only to sprinkle them back on top. He liked to know where they were so "they wouldn't surprise him." Today he was wearing an orange windbreaker over a matching orange shirt. Warren felt something brush his heart, a draft of despair. He glanced under the table: orange corduroys, and-glaring conspicuously above Jonas's Top-Siders-coral-colored socks."Jonas, you're dressed entirely in orange."Jonas nodded."He's exercising his individuality," Lyle said.Dustin clapped Jonas on the back. "I admire you for making the rest of us seem normal."Warren watched his orange son picking raisins from his cereal. He had enough on his mind already without worrying about the boy's mental health. "You look like a carrot.""Thank you," Jonas said politely.Warren frowned. He picked up the front page of the newspaper and was confronted with Mandy Rogers, the mentally retarded girl who'd disappeared from school. It had been two weeks since she went missing. There were signs hanging all over town: the flat, porpoisey face grinning at you from under a cowboy hat. Eerie and inescapable. Warren drove by the Rogerses' house, its squadron of news vans, on the way to his office every day."I wish they'd just find that poor girl's body," he said."You don't know she's dead," Camille said. "I wish you wouldn't go putting ideas in their heads.""What do you think? She just wandered off?""Yeah, Mom," Lyle said. "She's waiting at the Lost and Found?" "Maybe it's the same guy who stole the Chrysler," Dustin said."I doubt it. Car thieves don't generally abduct people."Warren said this without batting an eye. There were surfboards leaning undisturbed in all their neighbors' yards, yet Warren's family had believed him when he'd said the Chrysler was stolen. It dismayed him, how easy it had been. A fake call to the police, a trip downtown to file a report. (The truth was he'd spent the afternoon at the office.) He'd smoothed any wrinkles of doubt by telling them there were bands of crooks who specialized in gated communities, knowing that people left their keys in the car. "Sitting ducks," he'd called the families of Herradura Estates.In truth, Warren had been in denial about the Chrysler. He'd hoped -- despite the fact that he hadn't made a payment in six months, had ignored the bill collector's increasingly terse and belligerent notices -- that the lender might just forget the whole business. Instead the men had come at night, while Warren was asleep. He'd gone out to the driveway with Mr. Leonard and found a dark drool of oil where his car had been. And the stain was only a herald of things to come. There was the furniture, the new Maytag washer, the house itself.Dustin finished his breakfast, licking some grease that had run down his wrist. It was such a boyish gesture, so casually innocent, that the taste of fear eased back down Warren's throat. He would protect this innocence at all costs. If that meant lying to his family until he found a way out of this mess, so be it."How are the Deadbeats?" he asked Dustin, who'd gotten up to wash his hands in the sink. Warren loved to sit in the garage while they practiced, listening to their brain-throbbing music."We're not called that anymore.""You're not?""It's a dumb name," Dustin said. "We're trying to think of a better one."He turned his back to Warren, searching for something in the fridge. Warren was very familiar with this back. He had whole conversations with it. It was a strong back, beautiful in its gentle slopes and mesas: he'd gotten to know it the way you get to know a favorite view or painting. A back, even a silent one, was better than nothing. Still, there was a certain amount of faith involved: you had to trust it was listening, hunched over a guitar or a surfboard as if you weren't even there.His wife had disappeared from the kitchen. Warren got up from his stool at the counter and went to find her. The hallway, like their room itself, was decorated with shell sculptures and turd-colored macramé things and paintings not unlike the splotch of oil staining the driveway. Camille had bought them all at a store called Creativity Unleashed, which sold art by developmentally disabled people. Mandy Rogers's disappearance had inspired her to invest in heroically unattractive art. She'd wanted to hang it all over the house, but the kids had refused to adorn their walls with "retard paintings" and the bulk had ended up in their bedroom. When Warren objected, wondering if some types of creativity weren't better off leashed, Camille had called him hardhearted. He couldn't tell her it was the waste of money that frightened him.Now he found his wife in the bathroom, tugging at her tennis skirt instead of getting dressed for work. He had to remind himself it was Saturday. Camille made educational videos for the public school system, and Warren often felt guilty for not taking it as seriously as she did. It was her goodness-her belief in higher rewards than money-that he'd always been attracted to."Where did Jonas get orange socks?" he asked, watching her put on some lipstick."He picked them out at Nordstrom's," Camille said."You bought them for him?""How was I supposed to know he'd dress up like that?"Warren sat on the bed to untie his sneakers. "Given the choice between a slow kid and a genius who dresses like a carrot, I might have chosen the former.""Any word from the police?" she asked."What?""About the Chrysler! Did they learn anything?"Warren shook his head. "Probably scattered all over the state by now," he said.Thankfully, Camille didn't seem to question this and began dabbing her lips with a Kleenex. A little pink T, like a cat's nose, stained the middle. She was still lovely: blond hair and the sort of wholesome, cheerleadery face, freckled and wide-eyed and slightly bucktoothed, that caused people to smile at her from their cars. She was a Midwesterner in the way Blackbeard was a pirate: iconic to the species. Even when she was angry at Warren she seemed hopelessly preppy, her face a cardigan pink. He wanted to tell her that his project in the desert -- for which he'd sacrificed everything, his family's own future -- was a disaster. Everything they had was in peril. If she knew, they could face down the debt collectors -- the angry phone calls and investors -- together. It would be like before they were married, when Warren was in law school in Chicago and they were living in a run-down studio in Rogers Park, so poor they'd been forced to eat a moose Camille's brother had shot in Michigan. They'd survived on ground moose meat all winter, using Hamburger Helper to mask the flavor. Moose Helper, they'd called it, laughing at the TV commercials they'd thought up as a joke.Warren got up from the bed and kissed Camille's neck, holding the faint bulges that had recently formed at her waist. She turned around in surprise."Camille . . ." The surprise on her face melted to concern. "What is it?""There's something . . ."He couldn't meet her eyes. Last week, making love, she'd said something to him strange and terrible, a confession of despair. I want to die. Through the bedroom window, he could see Dustin waxing his surfboard in the backyard, kneeling on the lawn while Jonas practiced his fencing moves. The sun had broken through the mist, lighting the persimmon tree near the garden into a blaze of orange fruit. Beneath it, lunging in the sunlight, his fruit-colored son looked weirdly beautiful."Mr. Leonard," Warren said quietly. "Maybe it's time we had him looked at."
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Interviews & Essays

An interview with Eric Puchner, author of Model Home (February 2010, Scribner)

1. How did you come to write Model Home?

I started thinking about Model Home when I was still finishing my collection of stories, Music Through the Floor. I wanted to write something about my late father, who lost all his money when I was a teenager and ended up living in the Utah desert, a casualty of the American dream, but up till then my attempts at approaching his life directly hadn't worked out. I'd spent two years on a short story about the end of his life, and could never get it right. He was a difficult, tragic man, and I didn't have the distance to turn the story into something shapely and sympathetic. So I took a big step back and came up with the Zillers, a family that bears no relation to my own, and was able to write much more convincingly, and empathetically, about my father's plight. Along the way, I became increasingly interested in the lives of the other characters I'd created, so much so that the children in some ways end up hijacking the book.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, too, was an anecdote a friend of mine had told me, about a man who came home from vacation one day and lit a cigarette before opening his front door, and his house exploded. He'd left the gas on for days. My friend's wife was the first on the scene, and in fact saved the man's life by rolling him in a blanket. It was such a potent, disturbing image-so haunting in its suddenness, in what it says about the precariousness of home-that I couldn't get it out of my head.

2. Why did you choose to set the novel in Southern California?

Well, it's a place Iknow well, having spent my teen years in the South Bay. But I'm also fascinated by the place itself and in particular the phenomenon of the exurbs outside of L.A.- the fact that so many people have voluntarily moved to the desert, to which they're not ecologically suited, content to spend half their lives on the freeway in order to have a larger home. The subculture of desert subdivisions, with their verdant, New England-y sounding names-Green Valley Springs, Gulls Landing-fascinates me.

3. Where do you begin when you're developing a character and a voice? How did the individuals in the Ziller family take shape?

Sentence by sentence. I view the first draft of a novel or short story as purely exploratory- I'm trying to figure out who the characters are, what their histories are, how they'll react to a specific turn of events and go on to cause or prevent others. It's a gradual process. I think of character as being more or less inseparable from attitude: if you can figure out how he or she observes the world and communicate that to the reader, then the rest of the details will evolve organically from that. Sometimes, if you're lucky, a character's attitude and voice will announce themselves from the very first sentence you write: Lyle, the daughter in Model Home, was an example of this. As soon as I wrote the beginning of her first point-of-view chapter-"Lyle's mother had to drive her to work, a universe of suck . . . "-I knew exactly who she was. Other times it takes several drafts: for example, I knew that Jonas, the youngest Ziller boy, dressed all in orange, but it took me a couple drafts to figure out why. The goal is to keep writing until the characters take on lives of their own and begin even to disobey your wishes.

4. You write that the Zillers "have every reason to be close but are as distant as satellites." Did you set out to portray a family with this particular dynamic? What do you think lies at the heart of their distance?

I think one of the reasons families remain such fertile material for writers from Shakespeare to Tolstoy to Alice Munro, is that you basically have a group of people forced to live in close proximity, forced to share a bathroom and a dinner table, to love one another's faults, despite the fact that they may not have any true affinity. This is doubly poignant in children, I think, since they're often very close as kids and yet sometimes find as they get older that they're very different people, with very different takes on life. After all, you don't get to choose your mom or dad or big brother; love, when it comes to family, is one big blind date. I think this is the bind that the Zillers face: they love each other, but don't necessarily know how to live together.

5. Lyle and Dustin represent two distinctly different varieties of teenage experience. Which is closer to your own?

That's an interesting question, because I consciously created them as two sides of my own teenage identity. Growing up in the South Bay, I was like Dustin in some ways: I surfed, I was mildly popular, I went to Hollywood on the weekends to see my favorite punk bands. Like Dustin, too, I longed to be part of the fringe but felt trapped by my own clean-cut, upper middle class identity. But I was also bookish, like Lyle, and secretly hated yahoo beach culture, and got sunburned all the time because my natural habitat is somewhere north of Hamburg. In many ways, I think of Lyle as being my true surrogate, which is odd given that she's a 16-year-old girl. But part of me loved Southern California, and part of me hated it, and I wanted to create two characters who embodied both sides of this ambivalence.

6. The novel offers a bittersweet portrayal of parenthood and the familial closeness that eludes Warren and Camille. You became a parent while you were working on the novel; did this inform your perspective on Warren and Camille's relationships with their children?

Absolutely. I knew that having children would impact my writing-I assumed negatively. What no one told me is how much insight it would bring to bear on parenthood. Certainly Warren's love for his children, his almost fanatical devotion to Dustin and the heartbreak he experiences when he perceives this love being rejected, stem in part from my own experience as a father, from being so besotted with my daughter and imagining what it will be like when she gets older and to some degree, inevitably, rejects me. The same is true of Camille's relationship with Lyle, I'm sure. But the general atmosphere in the Ziller household has much more to do with my own parents' troubled marriage than anything I've experienced as a father.

7. The characters' awkward and ironic wordplay is a great source of humor: the band names Dustin and his friends create, the slogans on Lyle's t-shirts, the titles of Camille's educational videos, the coining of awemuch. How do you come up with these? Is there a lot of linguistic fun around the Puchner dinner table?

Well, my daughter Tess is certainly fond of neologisms. It's one of the great things about being a parent, getting back in touch with the malleability of words. "How o'clock is it?" she'll ask, which I love. She's a budding storyteller, too. She told me this story recently: Once upon a time, there was you. The end. I think Beckett would be proud of her.

The name of Dustin's band-Toxic Shock Syndrome-was actually something my wife's sister came up with. She'd always thought it would be a good name for a band; personally, I was attracted to the fact that it sounds tough, but is actually a disease you get from wearing tampons. It would be like naming your band Human Papillomavirus. I found out recently that there was a real punk band named Toxic Shock in Hermosa Beach around the time I'm writing about: a total coincidence. I hope they're not offended.

8. In the novel, home ownership is, to a certain extent, the embodiment of the American dream. Warren wants it for himself, but also markets his real estate venture with that dream in mind. Both end in disaster. What does this say about the dream itself?

Well, that's a timely question. I think that dream is pretty much lying in tatters right now. The idea of owning a home as something we're entitled to is so ingrained in the American consciousness that it's hard to see it for what it is: a false desire, in the sense that it won't end up solving our problems and may even deepen them. To a certain extent, developers and mortgage lenders prey on that desire. And, as I've mentioned, the sacrifices we're willing to make for this dream- accrue enormous debt, spend half our lives on the freeway, live in the middle of the desert-are also what led me to write the book.

9. How did you arrive at the title Model Home?

Not easily. At different points the novel was called The Cost of Living, This World is Not Your Home, and The Land of Underwater Birds. When I mentioned the last title to people, they either swooned or burst into uncontrollable laughter. Finally I was having dinner with a friend of mine, also a writer, who suggested Model Home for a title. I fought it at first, but in the end it was too perfect to resist.

When a book of uncollected Mavis Gallant stories was published recently under the title The Cost of Living, I breathed a big sigh of relief that I hadn't gone with my first choice.

10. What are you currently reading and loving?

I've been reading story collections, probably because I'm working on stories myself again. I just finished the new Alice Munro collection, Too Much Happiness, which is terrific. She's a genius, I think. I also just read an advance copy of Richard Bausch's forthcoming collection, Something Is Out There. He's in top form - a beautiful, dark, moving book.
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