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In 'All This Could Be Yours,' A Day In The Death Of A Toxic Narcissist

With her sixth novel, Jami Attenberg, best known for The Middlesteins (2004), secures her place as an oddly sparkling master of warped family sagas. All This Could Be Yours, mostly set on a single, stifling August day in New Orleans following the heart attack of 73-year-old Victor Tuchman, is an autopsy of the considerable, lasting damage this toxic man has inflicted on his family.

Why should we be interested in reading about such an unequivocally bad person? For starters, because Attenberg's writing — as she demonstrated in her multifaceted portrait of the far-reaching repercussions of Edie Middlestein's food addiction — is full of brio. Here's her new novel's first line: "He was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing." A few paragraphs later, she shifts to Victor's long-suffering but disturbingly complicit wife, Barbra, who "sat on the couch, her posture tepid, shoulders loose, head slouched, no acknowledgement of his existence."

Attenberg's prose is never limp or tepid, though she occasionally over-reaches, as with a "self-important and disapproving" moon. But more typical is her opening scene, in which Barbra Tuchman flips through Architectural Digest while her inflamed husband paces the small New Orleans condo where they've landed in disgrace after he paid his way out of a harassment scandal up north. Victor notices her "chin limping" into her 68-year-old neck and thinks, "Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley."

Attenberg serves up a brutal portrait of a brutal man. Over the course of the novel's deep dive into the heart of this family's darkness, we learn quite a bit about what Victor Tuchman has done to his wife, daughter, son, and everyone else he comes into contact with, and quite a bit about how ready they are for him to die.

Barbra, a material girl if there ever was one, "had grown up dreaming of a man who would take care of her, give her all the things she desired." Attenberg adds one of her trademark acerbic kickers: "Love would be fine, too ..." This woman knew the deal from the start: "She'd keep his secrets and ask for nothing but objects." When Victor first held their newborn daughter, Alex, she told him, "If you ever even think of hurting her, just hurt me instead." And he did.

Alex, a recently divorced lawyer living outside Chicago, hopes her mother will finally explain exactly what her father did, how he evaded prosecution all these years, and why she stayed with him. Her brother Gary, who works in film and television, is beyond caring, for reasons we eventually learn. We also learn why Gary's wife, Twyla, a makeup artist, seems particularly shaken up.

What we don't learn is why the ironically named Victor is the way he is. What's at the root of this ruthless real estate developer's scorn for others and lack of basic decency? Attenberg doesn't go there; she makes no attempt to arouse even a flicker of sympathy for this character.

But gradually, as the unappealing details pile up — shady real estate deals, sexual aggression, over-weaning self-importance, misogyny, all-consuming self-absorption, a habit of throwing dirty money at his dirty problems — you can't help but think of a certain all-too-prominent narcissistic wheeler-dealer. And you understand why Attenberg has written this novel at this particular point in time.

'All This Could Be Yours' is orchestrated with the precision of an opera on a revolving stage.

All This Could Be Yours is orchestrated with the precision of an opera on a revolving stage. Throughout the course of one long day's journey into night, the novel shifts between Alex as she drinks her way through the bars of New Orleans, Gary as he seeks empty detachment in a Los Angeles spa, Barbra as she compulsively racks up steps in the hospital corridors outside her husband's room, and daughter-in-law Twyla, who rues the day her in-laws moved to New Orleans, upsetting her contented life with Gary and their daughter, Avery.

Attenberg's novel posits distinctions between good capitalism and bad ("when you made money on the backs of others and then kept it for yourself"), and between the relative benefits of forgiveness versus forgetting. Alex, at her unconscious father's bedside, tells him she will never forgive him for his derisive comments about her appearance, and "for making me believe less in the possibility of good in this world ... for spitting on the notion of family."

Attenberg brings air into this potentially suffocating story with wit, and with occasional digressions into some of the peripheral people the Tuchmans encounter without a thought as they move around post-Katrina New Orleans — a trolley conductor, ferry worker, EMT, and coroner. Initially jarring, these reminders that the people who make the city run have their own histories and troubles underscore the fact that life can be challenging. But they also reassure us of the possibility of not just good in this world but decency.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.