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Onyx reviews: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/25/2014

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour might best be described as a cross between the humorous writings of Dave Barry or Douglas Adams and the conspiracy-driven novels of Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. In Foucault's Pendulum, Eco had characters create a conspiracy theory on a whim, only to have it take on a life of its own. There's an element of that in Ferris's latest novel, which poses the question: If enough people make loose claims about their history, can these claims become accepted as fact? In the world of Wikipedia, where "truth" is determined by consensus, this seems more possible now than ever before.

Paul O'Rourke is the book's first person narrator. By all rights, he should be unlikable. He shuns technology—he still uses a VCR—but is obsessed with his smartphone, which he always calls his "me-machine." He's a successful Park Avenue dentist who is morose, self-absorbed, obsessive, lonely and depressed. He's the kind of guy who was a Red Sox fan so long as they maintained their decades-long record of failing to win the World Series. He sees their success as a betrayal of a mutual pact that required him to doggedly support the underdog (especially against the Yankees, who he reviles). 

He's also the kind of guy who, when he falls in love with someone, also falls in love with her family—to the point of obsession. He'd probably be uncomfortable to be around, because he is so clumsy and fawning. His most recent girlfriend, Connie, his office manager, was Jewish, so he studied up on Judaism and started awkward conversations about the holocaust and the Reformation with her relatives. He desperately wants to belong to a family. That's understandable. His father was bipolar and ultimately committed suicide by shooting himself when Paul was nine. His mother did her best in the aftermath of this tragedy, but she's now suffering from dementia, so Paul has no one in his life. 

Not even God, which is another of the book's focal points. When he was dating Connie, he was enamored of her faith without any interest or belief in its deity. Another of his employees, Mrs. Convoy, is a devout Christian who can't understand how Paul can refuse to believe in God, but he's adamant—strident, even—on this point. He willingly and aggressively attempts to tear apart other people's belief systems, even when his opinion isn't solicited. His conversations with Mrs. Convoy seem almost one-sided in the way they are depicted. Ferris indicates that Paul speaks without presenting his dialog, which readers must then extrapolate from her response. It's an interesting style, but perhaps a touch overused.

His life takes a strange turn when an odd patient tells him that he's an Ulm. Shortly thereafter, someone creates a website for Paul's dental practice, something his staff has been encouraging him to do. It looks good on the surface, but on Paul's biographical page there are long passages that recount the putative history of the Amalekites, a Biblical tribe that was destroyed by the Israelites. Then a Twitter account and a Facebook page are created in his name, all propagating the story of the Ulm, who were persecuted even worse than Jews were, according to the Cantaveticles, a pseudo-Biblical tract that may contain the first draft of the book of Job. Whoever has hijacked Paul's virtual identity knows a lot about him, including his middle initial, which he has never used. When legal avenues to have the false sites removed fail, Paul engages the perpetrator via email. Because the other person is using his name, at times it seems like Paul is debating himself—and maybe he is.

He has a hard time convincing his colleagues and acquaintances that the tweets and posts, many of them inflammatory and borderline anti-Semitic, aren't his. Nor can he convince his impersonator to leave him alone. And yet he is intrigued, because the basic tenant of the religion of the Ulm is doubt. Their God insists that his followers doubt his existence. Paul can relate to that. And he's not the only one—a rare book expert searches for a copy of the Cantaveticles and "Paul's" posts come to the attention of a self-made billionaire, who casually befriends Paul. The billionaire is another lost soul, trying on and discarding religions in an attempt to find his place in the world. None of this sounds even remotely funny on the surface (and, indeed, there are real tragedies in the novel), but Ferris's style and Paul's offbeat worldview make To Rise Again at a Decent Hour laugh-out-loud hilarious at times.

It all works quite well until Ferris has to wrap the story up. After certain revelations about the nature of the man who has injected himself into Paul's life are made (and why, again, did he choose Paul as the vehicle for his manifestos?) the book lurches to a halt. Ferris uses an epilog to explain Paul's future, but none of what happens there seems to arise organically from what came before. In the final analysis, Paul seems to be no better off after his experience. He's fundamentally unchanged.

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