A confirmed atheist who seeks a religious family to latch onto, a Red Sox fan who embraced them most when they were failures, a middle-aged man who feels self conscious saying “Good morning”--Paul O’Rourke is a depressed, lonely, but exceptionally fine dentist who suffers from a lifelong existential crisis, searching, but disconnected. Perhaps seeking the apt aphorism.
“Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be anything.”
Paul’s Jewish ex-girlfriend, Connie, works in the office. When they were together, he became consumed with Judaism (but not God) so that he could belong to her family. Years before, he tried to belong to a Catholic girlfriend’s Catholic family (but not God). Betsy, his upright dental hygienist, is a religious Roman Catholic, and Paul often enjoys debunking God in her presence. But he appreciated her rituals.
“Her internalization of Catholicism and its institutional disappointments suited a dental office perfectly, where guilt was often our last resort for motivating the masses.”
Paul’s emptiness was bottomless, and he was desperate to find a dedication to something bigger than himself. Replacing a rotten tooth with a pontic so that a patient could smile again, or watching David Ortiz bat a homer, and even drinking a mochaccino—these were no small things. But they didn’t promise eternal fulfillment or facilitate his restive soul to the submission of God.
“I would have liked to believe in God. Now there was something that could have been everything better than anything else…It could all be mine: the awesome pitch of organ pipes, the musings of Anglican bishops.”
However, he can’t make it past the Bible’s talk of “firmament.” He starts bleeding tears of terminal boredom.
He also keeps a low profile online—no Facebook, no Twitter. But the world’s preoccupation with Smart Phones, which he calls “me-machines," intrigues him. Occasionally, he Googles himself. Then, one day, he notices that someone has hijacked his identity, created a Facebook account of him and his dental practice, and alleges to be Paul O’Rourke! Moreover, the other Paul starts writing controversial religious excerpts from a bible that belongs to an ancient tribe or sect.
He (this thief of O’Rourke) claims to be an Ulm, from the Old Testament people known as the Amalekites—people who were even more persecuted than the Jews; in fact, they assert that they were destroyed by the Israelites. These online declarations in Paul’s name create contention with the Tweeting public; it hints of a political incorrectness bordering on anti-Semitism. Unless, of course, it is just the facts, and it is true. Is it true? Is Paul doing this to himself, has he lost his mind? The narrative advances a viable history of the Ulms, one that is provocative and convincing. Its doctrine is the belief in doubting God. As the plot progresses, Paul’s inner contradictions become an external force, one he has to reckon with, which demands him to take action, adjust his creature-of-habit lifestyle, and face the unfamiliar.
The story moves along like a locomotive, propelling me forward; I read it in two breathless sittings. Ferris has reached his pinnacle, and of all three novels, this is his best and most accomplished. It’s witty and edgy, but robust and penetrating-- even his flip remarks are moving and unsettling. Sometimes I laughed out loud, often I laughed inside. But I invariably felt Paul’s anguish. Ferris’s droll prose flows with the alacrity of a gazelle. And it never gets dull.
I can’t close my review without this choice example of his keen and aphoristic prose, which arrives on page two, as he describes the profession of dentistry as half-doctor, half-mortician:
“The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tries to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and molars stand erect as tombstones.”
Read it and leap!