The Teardown by David Homel


Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Phil Brenner's life resembles a house waiting to be torn down and replaced with something bigger and newer. The highlights of his career as a journalist are blurring. He feels unfairly sidelined by the younger generation who show no deference to his experience and cast him as an old privileged white man. He is estranged from his wife Amy, whose lucrative employment supports the suburban lifestyle he never wanted. His younger daughter Meghan acts out with sexual escapades, but that bothers him little. It is his older daughter Dana's gloomy retreat from the world that becomes his obsession, his source of loss.

Phil seeks help from grief therapist Anne Sheridan, but her underlying male stereotypes stand in the way of any real progress. Through Sheridan, he does meet Lynne, a woman whose family disintegrated after her husband abused her daughter. He begins to channel his need for intimacy, for understanding toward Lynne, but the hurt that they both feel erects a wall between them.

Salvation surfaces when an old flame, who now manages a magazine, offers him an assignment. The stomping grounds of his heydays, the Balkans, are brimming with refugees on their way to a better life in Western Europe, and Phil is “the man” to write their story. Feeling invigorated, Phil sees this is a chance to pull his daughter Dana back into the real world. He convinces her to come along on the assignment, and surprisingly she accepts.

In Serbia, his daughter reveals a confidence of her mother—she has taken a lover. Phil is unsure of the veracity of what Dana has told him, but his wife, Amy, then confirms her infidelity in an e-mail. Although the intimacy of the marriage has long since vanished, Phil still grapples with how he should respond. Absent of any sense of anger or deception, he focuses on how a marital breakdown could affect his fragile daughter. His worries are misplaced. In Serbia, Dana flourishes, demonstrating a gift for connecting with the refugees and empowering them to tell their stories. Father and daughter return home. Dana is now strong enough to escape her self-imposed isolation, but Phil must deal with his ambivalence toward his wife's affair.

As a study in absence, David Homel's eighth novel has literary merit. Its passages do convincingly convey a sense of distanced grief, and this seems to be the main purpose of the book. But there is little else to commend The Teardown. Its plot moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. Events in the novel are hardly memorable. Suspense is as absent as the emotional core of its protagonist. At best, this is a well-written niche novel for a generation of male readers indulging in lamentations for their past glory.

The Teardown is published by Véhicule Press.

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