By Elinor Lipman
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW04
By James P. Othmer
292 pp. $26.95
The hero of James P. Othmer's second novel, "Holy Water," is -- luckily for us -- living a middle-management life that has added up only to "the conscientious fulfillment of limited expectations." At 32, Henry Tuhoe has a résumé that traces his lateral moves and promotions from Oral Care to Non-headache-related Pain Relief to Laxatives to Silicon-based Sprays and Coatings and finally to vice president of the Underarm Division.
With the closing of "Armpits" -- one of the few places where the author's cleverness calls attention to itself -- corporate "rightsizing" coincides with the break-up of Henry's unhappy marriage to the unreasonable Rachel, who has forced him into a vasectomy. Or has she? This medical and marital mystery is where Henry first wins our sympathy and recruits us for his adventures. Not that he has a choice, but will his transfer be, as his boss characterizes it, "a chance to start over, an opportunity to lose his inherent wussiness"?
As with the author's acclaimed first novel, "The Futurist," "Holy Water" manages to be at the same time cynical and soul-searching, a difficult juggling act better served in some chapters than others. Henry must decide: Lose his job or be corporately exiled to the fictional third world Kingdom of Galado on the India-China border? There he will open a call center for Happy Mountain Springs bottled water, a sainted brand. Henry doesn't find out until he arrives that the citizens of the "unhinged monarchy" of Galado have no drinking water, that plastic bottles are outlawed, and that all the country's streams are toxic. But his corporate ennui turns into a personal humanitarian mission -- Clean water for all! -- fueled by love and eyes finally opened to the world outside himself. Alas, danger threatens and encroaches. "You have to know all the wrong people to get anything done in this country," he quickly learns.
His new home has a prince who is crazy to just the right megalomaniacal and comic degree. As a graduate of Northeastern, he speaks excellent English. Wearing Lycra workout tights while his iPod plays "High School Musical," he tells Henry, "I have decided to bypass governments and political diplomacy in favor of corporate diplomacy." As illiteracy, starvation and illness flourish, the prince dreams of office towers, banks, hotels, brand-name luxury boutiques and a 28-theater cineplex. His citizens, he asserts, despite demonstrations and uprisings to the contrary, do not want a democracy.
Though a layer of guy humor rests none too lightly on the first few chapters, we would miss larger-than-life Meredith, Henry's administrative assistant by day and an online nudist by night (her site, by subscription only: EEEEVA EEEENORMOUS and her 46EEEE Twins). Henry's secret voyeurism and respect for her multifold talents add a rewarding touchstone to the plot. No one-note porn star, the highly intelligent Meredith devours the National Review, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. Back at headquarters, via e-mail, strictly business, she helps Henry in his mission to supply fresh water to the parched and needy citizens of Galado.
The call center, despite daily training sessions, is never quite up and running: No employees speak English, and Henry is mightily distracted by the political realities of Galado, by his conscience and by Maya, a native and his second in command.
"You don't want to be here, do you?" she asks Henry on his first day. He replies sarcastically: "In a tiny village in the middle of nowhere teaching workers from a drought-plagued region how to talk about crystal-clear water that comes in a container that, incidentally, is forbidden here?"
In "The Futurist" Othmer demonstrated a terrific eye for the absurd, for deflating the big, the pompous, the entitled. Sly sentence by sly sentence, "Holy Water" similarly does not have a wasted word. Once he gets Henry out of Manhattan and into Galado, the author walks a perfect line between satire and compassion. Less satisfying are the ambitious plot turns, in which Henry's altruism goes a little action-adventure. There is a lane switch in the last few chapters, not just into darker comedy but into a more solemnly muckraking tone. Momentum doesn't offer an easy glide to the finish. As Maya tells Henry, "You use your humor and your cynicism to protect what is essentially smothered idealism." The same could be said for the hand that spins this often brilliant, always caustic corporate satire.
Is the marketplace asking authors to James-Bond-up their plots? Might some readers wish Henry had stayed in suburban New York, commuting to Manhattan, Cheever meets Vonnegut, having faith in the domestic over global ambitions? We look forward to that down-size. Othmer is a smart, elegant, witty writer who could do small beautifully.
Elinor Lipman's ninth novel, "The Family Man," is now in paperback.