In 2001, Nick Hornby published a discomforting novel called “How to Be Good.” It’s about a man who upends his life by deciding that he will always do what’s right. “Who could live with that?” Hornby asks. Call it the curse of extravagant virtue. Our orderly lives depend upon a certain degree of moral nearsightedness, our ability to moderate the demands of conscience, to ignore the fathomless needs of others much of the time. Lose that and you become a kind of ethical freak, clad in self-righteousness, reminding Frappuccino drinkers that there are kids dying in Africa.
In his beguiling first novel, “The Book of Jonah,” Joshua Max Feldman gives this theme a post-Sept. 11 update. It introduces itself as a good-natured satire of New York corporate life and the romantic machinations of the overeducated, highly compensated class. But in the twinkling of an eye, Feldman begins asking explicitly moral and religious questions that literary fiction usually only squints at through a glass, darkly.
From the title, you’ve probably already caught the reference to the Bible’s most popular story: that strange, brief tale toward the end of the Old Testament about a prophet who does his best to defy God’s command. For generations, children’s books and cartoons involving a commodious whale have Disneyfied the Hebrew story, deleting entirely Jonah’s disappointment when the city of Nineveh repents and is spared. Feldman takes a similarly forgiving approach to the bitter prophet, using the original book of Jonah only as general inspiration for his own story, which pinches from Noah and Job, too.
When we meet our modern-day Jonah, he’s a handsome lawyer quickly rising toward partner at one of the oldest, most prestigious firms in New York. Feldman knows this confident young attorney right down to his briefs, and in the opening pages of the novel, he subjects him to a cross-examination that lays out both his considerable charms and his worrisome expediency. Jonah is a master at “using the law not so much to adjudicate the dispute as to choke the adversarial party to death.” But he’s likable and appropriately interested in the right charities that help the needy a “smidge.” He’s moderate in all things except billable hours, and his politics are “manifested mainly in voting Democratic, reading some Paul Krugman, and avoiding racial/sexual invective.” While looking for an apartment with his beautiful girlfriend, he’s just about certain that he really should stop sleeping with another young woman he’s been breaking up with for the past 10 years. “It was going to work out,” Jonah tells himself. “It was all moving toward a common good end, a final good end. Maybe, just maybe, the whole world was entirely perfectible.”
You can hear Everybody from Allah to Zeus chuckling at that naiveté. . . . But nothing can dampen Jonah’s shiny optimism, not even the dour warnings of a Hasidic Jew on the street who tells him, “You can’t hide on the subway from the Lord’s outstretched hand any more than Jonah could hide on the seas. Wouldn’t you rather be counted among the righteous when the arrogant are washed away?”
With the first 50 pages, Feldman gives ample proof that he can write about well-dressed New Yorkers with the same prickly wit that Claire Messud offered in “The Emperor’s Children.” And his deft portrayal of Jonah’s self-justifying betrayals recalls “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” by Adelle Waldman. But then “The Book of Jonah” takes the first of several daring risks: At a party for a distant relative, Jonah experiences a vision, a terrifying, undeniable, scalding sight of New York utterly destroyed: “The Empire State Building collapsed and Grand Central Station collapsed and the subway tunnels flooded with water and then water rising to the streets through the concrete so that what had been the city, this city, became an island again interlaced with rivers.”
Suddenly, we’re in a very different kind of novel, one willing to explore directly the kinds of spiritual questions that polite people don’t ask, questions that our busy lives are designed to render irrelevant.
Until this disturbing vision, Jonah hadn’t given much thought to God one way or another. “If he’d thought about it,” Feldman writes, “he would have allowed the possibility of something Almighty-ish: some sort of vague and unfathomable field of enormous but inscrutable power. He thus understood divinity the way most people understood Wi-Fi.” But that fuzzy abstraction is no longer possible. Jonah knows it’s crazy, but what is a rational, secular, well-educated person to do with a divine message — complete with flaming Hebrew script? This isn’t George Burns making it rain in John Denver’s car; this is Yahweh revealing a field of bones. Like any of us non-placard holders, Jonah desperately tries to explain away these revelations: They’re just mini-strokes, the effects of alcohol or pot or stress or incipient insanity. But none of those explanations seems adequate. “What he’d seen,” Feldman writes, “had not struck him as a distortion of reality, but rather as a sudden and jarringly clear exposure of reality.” Wakened to the fact of our universal mortality, Jonah feels divinely impelled to tell the truth, to think purely and to act justly.
Could anything more calamitous befall a corporate lawyer?
Several years ago, the theoretical physicist Alan Lightman wrote a quiet, curious novel called “Ghost” about a rational man who can’t lose the sense that he’s seen something spectral. Feldman is working with a similar conundrum, but he’s concerned primarily with the attendant moral transformation that these visions inspire in Jonah. The publisher has somewhat recklessly compared this novel to the Calvinist fiction of Marilynne Robinson, but Feldman’s antecedents are gentler and more whimsical, something along the lines of Leif Enger’s classic “Peace Like a River” and Catherine Ryan Hyde’s “Electric God.”
Woven through Jonah’s story is a parallel tale about Judith, a brilliant young woman raised by academics in a blissfully happy home. As with Jonah, Judith’s preordained success is suddenly shattered — not by a vision from God but by a scathing demonstration of His absence. Ironically, the disorientation this causes is no less severe than what Jonah experienced. Perhaps that’s the essential thing about God: He’s disruptive when He shows up and when He doesn’t. With a clarity that never loses its sympathy and tenderness, Feldman depicts Judith becoming “a martyr to the injustice of her own life.”
Unfortunately, “The Book of Jonah” starts to lose its sure footing in the second half. The pacing and tone grow erratic. The introduction of a ridiculous Las Vegas real estate developer lowers the novel’s quality considerably. And the plot eventually turns on a couple of events that seem overdetermined and sentimental, a kind of “When Harry Met Sally at the Apocalypse.”
Still, Feldman is a tremendously endearing writer. His satire lacks that astringent bitterness that can make some witty novels seem heartless. And his willingness to pose the big questions to the whirlwind makes for unusually thoughtful reading. It will be interesting to see where this novelist goes next, after he gets back from Nineveh.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE BOOK OF JONAH
By Joshua Max Feldman
Henry Holt. 336 pp. $28