The majority of Jami Attenberg’s latest novel, “All This Could Be Yours,” is set on a single sweltering day in New Orleans, on the occasion of Victor Tuchman’s impending death. His long-suffering wife, Barbra, calls their children — Alex, a lawyer, and Gary, who works in television — but only Alex returns to her dying father’s bedside, informing Victor she forgives him “for half” of his trespasses: hitting his family (particularly Barbra); vanishing from their Connecticut home for days without explanation; chastising them for showing emotion, and generally being cold.
Victor, characterized by size, violence and mysteriousness, is more an archetype than a vivid presence on the page. Gary, anguished by wife Twyla’s betrayal, is also more opaquely drawn than his mother and sister. The third generation — Sadie and Avery, smart, articulate, perceptive granddaughters — appear every so often, with only a vague sense of who their grandfather was.
Barbra, who consumes mostly ice water with lemon slices, and who silently repeats the mantra “pretty and thin,” is a study in joylessness. Though she positions herself as the protector of her children, she struggles to maintain a deep connection or genuine interest in them, and her truest passion is furniture. When she and Victor move to New Orleans, where Gary and Twyla live, the family assumes it is merely to escape the slew of accusations heaped upon Victor, who has made his wealth among “nefarious professional associates,” a career with “dirt everywhere.” It is unthinkable that Victor and Barbra chose New Orleans just to be closer to Gary, and in fact, Victor looks forward to Gary’s long professional absences, pursuing a brief affair with an immediately remorseful Twyla.
Attenberg takes advantage of the lush city and its remarkable heat, its river, the splendor of its tourism industry. Most of the characters are either visitors or outsiders: Even Gary and Twyla, who live there, are from other places. Sharon, the coroner who examines Victor’s body, is one of the few people who have spent most of their lives in the city, who have a relationship with it beyond that of a spectator. Sharon has a brief cameo at the beginning of the novel and a spectacular section toward the end — in one scene, she decides to tend a neighbor’s overgrown garden secretly, a captivating, gothic short story tucked inside the novel — and this shift in voice and perspective displays the range of Attenberg’s considerable skill.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy won the 2019 Stella Kupferberg Memorial Short Story Prize. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
All This Could Be Yours
By: Jami Attenberg.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 299 pages, $26.