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At the Bottom of Everything

Ben Dolnick

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Sep 2013)

Eastern Promises

Washington, DC, in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. A friendship forms between two school kids. One, Adam, is mostly interested in being normal, attending parties, and hooking up with high-school girls. The other, Thomas, is harder to read. Everyone seems slightly in awe of Thomas’s intellect. Normal adolescent matters don’t trouble him. He’s unnervingly even-keel.


Adam admires Thomas’s philosophical depth. When a teacher erupts at Thomas, Thomas handles the situation calmly, and he later says, “Well, that could have been much worse.” How many teens have the presence of mind to shrug off a teacher-meltdown? Adam wishes that he had Thomas’s strength of character, his spine.


But the friendship begins to suffer. Why can’t Thomas just get drunk and go after meaningless foreplay, as nearly everyone else does? Maybe he’s not such an asset, after all, thinks Adam.


However, time with Thomas is still sometimes fun. For example, one night, Adam and Thomas persuade each other to steal the keys to Thomas’s parents’ car. It’s late, and they drive slowly, attempting tricks from action movies. One boy will run and jump onto the windshield while the other boy drives. Other stunts ensue. On a fateful night, weeks later, Thomas performs a trick that Adam doesn’t anticipate. Thomas jumps from the driver’s seat out the door and, for complex reasons, neither Thomas nor Adam is able to catch up with the car as it rolls away.


In slow-motion, the car moves into an intersection. Its lights are off. Another vehicle nearly collides with it, and swerves at the last second. The vehicle strikes a young woman. She is hospitalized and later, she dies.


Thomas and Adam recover the car and escape from the scene with (possible) impunity. No one has seen them. They go on to live their lives. They drift apart. Guilt gnaws at both. Adam finishes college and doesn’t really know what to do, so he stumbles into tutoring and a superficial relationship.


The relationship ends, and Adam’s heart breaks. He wanders into tutoring sessions, and entire hours pass in which he says very little, or nothing. (As he notes, depression can make you unusually skilled at enduring long stretches of tedium.)


One particularly randy tutoring mom propositions Adam, and suddenly the two are fucking in the mom’s bedroom. The affair becomes all-consuming, until the mom’s estranged husband walks in on the couple. Suddenly, Adam’s tutoring career is over.


At the same time, disturbing reports regarding Thomas come in. His parents are at a loss. Thomas has not finished college; he has spent too much time on the couch; he has traveled to India, and he no longer has contact with his family. Could Adam reach out to his long-lost friend?


It’s not fully clear to me what motivates a soul as troubled and immature as Adam to perform the good deed that follows. In any case, Adam does consent to write to Thomas. The e-mails persuade Adam to get on a plane and follow Thomas to India.


All of the novel, up to this point, is interesting and plausible. As I re-narrate it, in all of its complexity, I think, Can I really have believed each plot twist as it happened? I really did believe the twists. It’s a tribute to the author, Ben Dolnick, that I didn’t even think to doubt the twists.


What happens toward the end is no less plausible but, unfortunately, it’s uninteresting. Adam discovers that Thomas has learned some Zen tricks. Adam follows Thomas to the home of the car-crash victim’s family, and both young men atone for their sin. Some of the Eastern philosophy and practice that Thomas has adopted will take root in Adam. Adam will accept that desire leads to suffering, and that standing still and taking deep breaths is almost always a good idea. Compassion leads to maturity. Self-forgiveness leads to empathy. Yadda yadda yadda.


I want to emphasize all there is to love about this book. Dolnick is a young writer in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and he is the real thing. His gift for metaphors deserves recognition. He writes with humor and intellectual rigor. His decision to narrate portions of the novel via e-mail transcripts is wise, and the e-mails really do reflect many different, compelling perspectives on Thomas’s decline.


And yet the last third of the novel simply didn’t have me on the edge of my seat. The grown-up Thomas seemed more like an idea than like a person. The tension between Adam and Thomas isn’t really addressed, and it needs to be addressed. It’s the core of the novel, and it gets cast aside. If Alice Munro were telling the tale, the final pages would be some kind of breathtaking confrontation between the two men or, at least, there would be a genuinely surprising epiphany. Nothing like this happens in Dolnick’s novel.


Call it a failed, enjoyable experiment. Still, I will keep an eye on Dolnick’s career.


Also, if you’re looking for a similar and slightly more satisfying story, consider David Schickler’s memoir, The Dark Path. Schickler covers quite a bit of Dolnick’s terrain, but Schickler has a memorable, well-earned ending.

Rating:

I am a freelance writer and teacher who lives in New York.


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