In The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, Jenn Stroud Rossman has created a spirited, heartwarming tale of a family in freefall who must navigate a series of personal tragedies against the backdrop of our country’s greater tragic moment following 9/11. While perhaps not as robust or deep as something like Jonathan Franzen’s explorations of family dynamics in Freedom or The Collections, what Rossman achieves through her snappy dialogue, flowing plot, and relatable characters is not to be ignored.
Loudermilks: the Strain for Something Better
The book is careful, maybe even safe, as it guides the reader through woe after woe, but it is no less devastating in its portrayal of a teenager, Chad, and his family as they are forced through the ringer. They are, Chad especially, a family worth rooting for, featuring the kind of redemptive qualities that beg a happy ending even as they are individually shown to be flawed in the strain to better themselves.
The story follows Chad’s growing pains as his best friend moves schools, he begins attending a high school where he is the only African American, and his father goes through a midlife crisis that sees him lose his marketing job and conduct an affair with the wealthy neighbor’s wife. Not to mention that Chad’s adoptive parents are white and whose last name, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, is Loudermilk. One of Chad’s black friends, who he meets at a record store, calls him Loudermocha throughout. While the trope of imbuing deeper meaning in names may be somewhat tired, Rossman here uses it humorously, delicately, allowing the reader to guess at the intended depth of the symbolism while chuckling along with the reader about how it places Chad in the world.
Rossman’s depiction of Chad navigating a flawed world that is out to get him because of his race could have gone poorly. Thankfully, Rossman writes these emotionally fraught sections of the book brilliantly, featuring a scene where a mall cop’s microaggression drives Chad’s friend Marcus to shoplift, which leads to Marcus’ mother having a conversation with Chad’s adoptive white mother about the things she isn’t able to teach Chad as she tries to raise him the best way she knows how, her inefficacy in stark contrast to the psychiatric services she provides struggling teen girls. While the book is set in 2002, Rossman’s innate ability to make this story seem like it is happening just down the street in 2018 is beautifully wrenching and makes the story all the more impactful.
The mother of Chad’s best friend puts Chad’s predicament best when she says, “So much work to just hold still,” in reference to a neighborhood tragedy that leaves Chad and everyone he knows reeling. Throughout, we see Chad trying to figure out how best he can hold still, how he is supposed to be most naturally himself, answering the ultimate growing up question of who he is. In relation to himself, but also to his family, which grows increasingly complicated through Rossman’s tightly controlled verbiage.
All of the character’s struggles, pain, and disorientation eventually leads, if not to a happy ending, at least a hopeful one, when Rossman writes about Chad and his family, “But today, they had chosen joy.” In that redemptive phrase, Rossman not only shows how Chad’s family might begin the work of repairing the damage they inflicted on one another, but she also illuminates a way forward for all families, perhaps even for our society at large. It is these types of lessons that allows a good work of literature to become great.
The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh will be published by 7.13 Books on November 14, 2018.