Paul O’Rourke is a chronically depressed, misanthropic, but conscientious and successful dentist on Park Avenue in New York in this amusing if uneven meditation on life in the 21st Century.
As Paul says in the very beginning, he encourages his patients to floss, even though there’s no point:
“Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.”
Paul tries very hard to find meaning in his life, but nothing turns out to be “everything” for him – whatever and whoever he tries to think of as “everything” turns out to have weaknesses, flaws, or inconsistencies, or worse yet, threatens to be something or someone he might love, and therefore might lose. As we learn early on, Paul’s beloved father committed suicide when Paul was nine, and he has really never recovered. Although he spends his life looking for something to love, he always backs off whenever it threatens to work out. Even the Red Sox have let him down – they used to be a team you could count on to lose, and now they have started winning.
Since he thinks he desperately wants to be “sucked up, subsumed into something greater, historical, eternal,” he naturally gravitates toward the Jews. They form, he thinks, “a tightly coiled heart of unified purpose whose signal achievement . . . was a defense against loss.” Just what he is looking for. But it turns out being Jewish implies a belief in God, and that is something Paul just can’t manage.
But even if Paul can’t quite grab onto religion, it grabs onto him instead. Paul becomes the victim of a bizarre online identity theft, in which his identity hijacker challenges him about faith. The Internet-Paul explains that even doubters have their own religion, calling themselves the Ulms, and in fact it is from these doubters that morality is derived:
“Our moral foundation is built on the fundamental law that God (if there is a God, which there is not) would not wish to be worshipped in the perverted and misconceived ways of human beings, with their righteous violence and prejudices and hypocrisies. Doubt, or cease being moral.”
[The book begins, it should be noted, with a quote from Job refashioned in modern language. Job, of course, is the Bible book most cited by those who doubt, as well as by those who question the association of morality with belief in God.]
In the end, Paul finally finds something he can believe in that won’t let him down, and it is will strike a certain group of readers as hilarious.
Evaluation: This book has a lot to recommend it; it is thought-provoking and very, very funny in parts. It also serves as an astute commentary on the modern search for meaning through material goods and superficial online connections. But Ferris loses his pacing and narrative momentum when he goes into too much depth about the history and doctrines of the Ulm cult. A few additional subplots also receive too much attention, muddying up the flow of the story rather than contributing much. I am impressed with the author though, and I think with better editing, he could be as rewarding to read as Jonathan Tropper, of whom Ferris reminded me.
This would make a great book club selection.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2014