Peep World is the story of a family on a collision course with itself. Four siblings, Jack, Nathan, Joel, and Cheri Meyerwitz, stumble into a series of humiliations and forced confessions during the course of a single day. They come together as a family, reluctantly, for the seventieth birthday of their father, Henry – less a controversial father than a charismatic, powerful, and sometimes maddening presence in their lives. Instead of a celebration, the party degenerates into an absurd theater of accusation and resentment, a showdown between angry, argumentative adult-children and an intractable, impatient father.
Jack Meyerwitz is an architect. The principle of a small, faltering firm. The brightest, the most successful, he carries the full weight of his father’s expectations. Living up to these expectations is a crushing burden, and as his business fails, Jack plunges into a daily routine of denial and depression. He confides in no one, hiding behind an obsessive interest in Hitler and a secret wish for a life of modest responsibility and diminished expectations. Caught in a viewing booth in Peep World, a pornographic video arcade, he’s forced to confront his dissembling nature, to undo the damage he’s done to his relationship with his wife and, ultimately, to face his father.
His brother, Joel, is overweight, debt-ridden and slightly deluded. He sees himself and his own struggles in mythic proportions, like he’s Abraham Lincoln or Joe Louis. Stubbornly positive, regardless of his circumstances, he’s a lawyer, perhaps the least successful one in America. He falls in love with a strong-willed African American, a veteran with a young son, but blows it on their first date. He pursues her with all the subtlety of a stalker, wins her back against all odds and begins a slow transformation: losing weight, putting his life in order, proving to Henry and to everyone else he’s not a lost cause.
Nathan’s a writer. His novel, a celebrated best seller also called Peep World, has won over the world and he’s returned home to win over his family. First, however, we learn he’s troubled by what might be called sexual performance issues. Seeking treatment for premature ejaculation, he subjects himself to a humiliating examination and receives an injection which gives him an erection, a pulsating reminder of his own obsessions, which will simply not go away. This situation is compounded by anxieties relating to his work as a writer. Overwhelmed by the scale of his success, uncertain he has anything left to say and unable to produce, the image he carefully cultivates crumbles.
Cheri, the sister, the only girl in a family of merciless boys, the daughter of a submissive mother and a larger-than-life father, is desperately in search of a new identity, including a new name and, perhaps, a new religion. A struggling actress, she calls herself Cheri Hawthorne in honor, she says, of the author of Moby Dick. Outraged by her portrayal in Peep World, she files a lawsuit for defamation of character. As ridiculous as that may seem, it touches a nerve with the rest of the family. Her boyfriend, a Jew for Jesus, champions her quixotic quest to settle her dispute with Nathan in court, but mostly serves to feed her boundless narcissism.
Peep World is about the price of exposure, a chronicle about what happens when secrets are dragged into the light of day, how their effect can be comic or revelatory, but more often than not simply grotesque. Nathan’s novel is a thinly veiled and somewhat brutal satire of the family, but it’s only a prologue for what happens during a day of misadventures and for the real cruelty and comedy of a family all too willing to pick itself apart over dinner.