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Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: 'To Rise Again at a Decent Hour'

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris
Literary Fiction
May 2014
Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 978-0316033978

Paul is an ordinary dentist with minor quirks. He has a practice in Manhattan but adores the Boston Red Sox. That was his father's team, and some of his best-preserved memories are of being a boy, sitting at his father's feet, during games. If only his father hadn't fallen victim to despair and killed himself.

He hasn't had much practice with women. (He has had such little practice that he uses a highly offensive term to describe what others might just call being in complete thrall to the object of one's love.) The two he has loved the most, he also has fallen in love with their families. But it got uncomfortable very fast as the hapless young man tried to ingratiate himself, wanting to become Catholic like the first love's family and then Jewish like the second love's family. Paul's former fiancee still works in his office and, although they show no interest in getting back together, they have fallen into the comforting kind of routine that old married couples share. Now that he's on his own again, he's decided to be an atheist.

Paul doesn't have much to do with the internet, although he does post a few things about baseball. But as the online impersonations escalate, Paul becomes more attached to his "me-machine", whether it takes the form of tablet or smart phone, more than his employees or his patients.

In Joshua Ferris's brilliant new novel, this is only the beginning. First, there's a website about his practice. Then social media accounts. It's all accurate. But it's not him. And it's getting to him. Who is this guy pretending to be him?

This setup is light, amusing and sails by. But as the online masquerades escalate, things get deeper, darker and far more murky. The imposter starts posting quasi-biblical, important-sounding things about a lost people who are scattered around the planet. Comparisons are made to Jewish people. Paul is more than uncomfortable. Connie, his ex-fiance who still works for him, is Jewish. She and Paul's office manager, a woman near retirement age who knows her Old and New Testament, do not recognize what this person is posting. They also don't understand why Paul doesn't just admit it's him.

Is it Paul? Is he fooling himself? Is Ferris fooling the reader? Would that be the case if he emails the imposter and gets back the response: "How well do you know yourself?" Say, just what is going on here?

Just when it looks to get very uncomfortable reading about a group of people that is "so wretched they envy the history of the Jews", the story changes again. There's a specific reason Ferris has gone this route, and it has a lot to do with self-awareness and belonging.

Everything falls wonderfully into place (whether one thinks that what happens is what would be the best thing to have happen). It is Paul's patients who provide him with an epiphany about faith, the power of doubt and how a person could consider how he fits into the world. His deep-seated love for the Red Sox, tied so strongly to Paul's love for his father, before they ever broke the curse of the Babe and the godawful season when Bobby Valentine was the manager and the team and their fans endured the biggest drop in baseball fortune that has ever been, is used to test that power of doubt to uphold faith. And Ferris makes it work.

This is a novel that once appeared it was going to go off the rails in spectacular fashion. But instead, it ends up feeling heartfelt and provides an emotional homecoming that means it was all worth it in the end, that just like our protagonist, what we yearn for is to be able to get a good night's sleep and to rise again at a decent hour to spend another day here in the world.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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