I should give a warning here. Unless you’ve already read the book To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, after reading this post you’ll know a great deal more about it than you did before. I’ve tried not to give too much away, but of both joy and necessity I’ve said more than a little. I think regardless of what I’ve noted here, the wit and audacity of Ferris’s prose merits a read of this book no matter how much you know about it. But I know not everyone feels that way about such matters… so please, consider yourselves duly warned.
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To Rise Again At a Decent Hour is the story of atheist and dentist Paul O’Rourke, a man in search of the ever-elusive everything. Golf was everything—for a while anyway—as were the Red Sox, movie streaming, walking tours of Manhattan, banjo-playing, a thriving dental practice, and a couple of failed romances. As O’Rourke confesses, “Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.” It’s hard to find your everything, you see, when the end game—so obvious to the practicing dentist, who must spend his days fending off rot and decay—is forever wafting up to greet you.
O’Rourke is a fantastic dentist, but he is miserable because he finds it difficult to enjoy the ordinary moments of his life. This is a misery to which I believe we can each relate. Whether we are persons of faith or we are atheists is irrelevant to this I think, and Ferris seems to agree. Like O’Rourke, who faces his demons in the deepest hours of the night by texting old lovers, watching recorded regular season Red Sox games—(regular season, for the love of God!)—or driving golf balls into the Hudson River from his custom-modified balcony, we must each encounter the restless quiet of our longing.
If this all sounds depressing, it’s not, for Ferris brings a verve to his writing that tickles, and a string of intimate confessionals about what it is to be human that are laugh-out-loud funny. O’Rourke is a troubled character, but not a tragic one. He doesn’t just fall in love with a woman, for instance, he falls in love with her entire family, as if he might expunge himself of those sleepless nights through adoption into a field of belonging. Then he oversteps, risks untenable intimacies, inserts foot into mouth, and ends up again with his chicken curry and the Sox on video cassette.
One aspect of the book I loved is that it wasn’t obviously written to pound a philosophical nail. Although the protagonist is an atheist, and though he finds conventional religions fairly ridiculous—as one might expect—the resolution of this novel is a delicate acceptance of the richness of life, a sense of one individual’s embrace of the unknown. It’s not an affirmation of any religion, but it’s not an affirmation of a hard line sort of atheism either. Ferris won’t quite surrender one to the other, and leaves them poised in the balance.
In one of the novel’s consummate moments, O’Rourke is reflecting on his surrender to a bizarre spirituality whose principal tenet, paradoxically, is the necessity of doubt, and says, “I guess I needed to make myself vulnerable. I was sick of the facts, the bare facts, the hard, scientific facts. I was saying: Look at me, seeking among the dubious. Doing something stupid, something stark raving mad. Look at me, risking being wrong.”
For me, the novel’s ending was just right. It floated on a certain sweetness and suggested there may be an elusive something in the balance of things, flickering through each moment—an everything perhaps—that we cannot call our own, but which can be glimpsed in our decision to risk the fullness of life in its fleeting embraces, and in the candor of its intimacy. Something beautiful, that’s been there all along.