Performance Anxieties 

Joshua Braff's dad used to make him sing at parties.

Joshua Braff did not write an autobiographical novel, and he wants to make damn certain you know that. While Braff may have suffered the same overwrought teen angst and horny ineptitude as the title character, make no mistake: The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green is fiction. Sure, both Joshua and Jacob grew up in suburban New Jersey, both were the second of four kids, and both attended Hebrew school and loathed it vigorously. The difference, of course, is Dad. Whereas Joshua the writer had a dad who loved Woody Allen, community theater, and Orthodox Judaism, Jacob the character has a father who loves Woody Allen, community theater, Orthodox Judaism, and being an utter bastard.

"I was definitely nervous about showing him the manuscript," says Braff, an earnest-faced Oaklander with a longish hairdo that would look perfectly natural if he were rocking in a Jersey garage band circa 1981. "He said, 'I'm worried that people will think Abram is me,' which is why I'm telling everyone that this is a novel; it's made up. There are elements of people I know in every character, but Abram is definitely not my dad."

And it's a good thing, too. Abram, the tyrannical heart of the novel, is a charming raconteur, a much-loved man-about-town who transforms like Bruce Banner when he's out of the spotlight. He demands that his children perform to impress the neighbors, and Jacob and his siblings live in terror of the consequences of failing to deliver the most beautiful rendition of "Matchmaker" or the most sublime bit of reading from the Torah. Abram wheedles, badgers, berates, and guilt-trips his loved ones, though if this is love, spinsterhood seems infinitely preferable. When his time-tested motivational maneuvers fail to produce the desired results, Abram usually moves onward to an eye-popping meltdown, a frantic orgy of threats and recriminations before he finally dissolves into a pathetic puddle, begging forgiveness and making lame promises to change. And why was it that Braff's real-life dad was so eager to dissociate himself from this guy?

"I wrote the book with blinders on," the author says. "I didn't want to limit myself by considering the consequences. My dad is actually incredibly supportive -- we did have to perform for the neighbors at parties and bar mitzvahs, but it was never with that sort of pressure."

It's clear that those performances had lasting effects. All four siblings have chosen creative careers that put them in the public eye. Joshua's older brother Adam is a working screenwriter, and little sister Shoshannah is a fashion designer. Zach, the baby of the family, has become a bona fide star, showcasing his talents in the popular sitcom Scrubs as well as writing, directing, and starring in the new movie Garden State. And, since we're talking about fiction, it should be noted that while Garden State features a tyrannical father and an absent mother against the backdrop of suburban New Jersey, it also bears only a passing resemblance to the Braff brood's childhood. Really. As for whether one of the Braff boys was ever suspended from Hebrew school -- as is one of the fictional Green boys -- for drawing a picture of the rabbi in a threesome with a lobster and a pig ... fiction.

"My dad used to make us perform for his friends," says the novelist, who will read at Cody's Southside on October 7. "But I have no desire to be up there onstage like that anymore. Zach can do it."

Braff's current home life is considerably more sedate than that of the characters in his fiction. After he and his wife decided several years ago to rely on her salary as a Silicon Valley marketing executive so that he could pursue writing full-time, "at first it was a bit of a tightrope walk." With no income and no publisher on the horizon, it was hard to justify the hours he spent every day in a public library tapping away at his laptop. "Friends would call and say, 'So you've got a baby on the way -- how's that story coming along?'"

Eventually that story was done, and Braff got an agent who shopped it around. "I'm comfortable with young, unheard, lonely, precocious characters," the novelist reflects -- but, that first time around, apparently the publishing industry was not: A dozen rejection slips piled up as editor after editor declined to accept such a "quiet book." Braff cut his losses, started over from scratch, and produced the bitingly subversive Unthinkable Thoughts. Now, midsize press Algonquin has him on a 25-city tour and Penguin has picked up the paperback rights.

Though the tour will doubtless bring him home to leafy, suburban New Jersey, Braff says he can't imagine living anywhere else than where he is now: leafy, suburban Montclair. "It's a little bit like living in South Orange. Back home we had that New York vibe, and it's the same here. You live in this totally pleasant place, but in minutes you can be downtown surrounded by guys with rings in their faces."

When he says that, it's almost possible to see Abram Green lifting a critical eyebrow and harrumphing, "Being surrounded by guys with rings in their faces is a good thing?" But fortunately Abram is purely fictional and Joshua Braff is free to do exactly as he pleases.

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green

Algonquin, $22.95


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