“The Book of Why” is far more interesting than you might think at first glance. It’s about Eric Newborn, a New Age guru and self-help author who gradually and painfully loses his faith.
His wasn’t a faith in an omnipotent, all-merciful or vengeful God who promises redemption, salvation or hell, but in a different sort of deity: a spiritual eminence, a friendly being who makes everything turn out for a reason and more exquisitely than you ever planned.
In that confident belief system, you’re responsible for your own condition: If you’re sick, it’s not just a symptom of a disease, but of a “dis-ease”; your body is out of kilter with itself, and you must be harboring negative thoughts. Shed those mental weights, and the sky is the limit.
Garden variety skeptics sneer at New Age thinking, but, in fact, it has a respectable American background with roots in the works of Mary Baker Eddy and a 19th-century group of sects loosely labeled “New Thought,” in which hard-working, honest folk earnestly applied these doctrines, or “affirmations,” and managed to live happy, healthy lives well into their 90s. Then, in the 20th century, the Beatles released “Rubber Soul,” and a great deal of American spiritual thought shifted yet again: Where ancient theologians agonized over being saved, intelligent moderns cried out delightedly, “See it, be it! Look — there’s our parking space!” Health and wealth became a God-given convenience, a blessing, a manifestation of supernatural life.
But sometimes it doesn’t work. And while conventional religions have libraries of tomes to explain disappointments and sin, the New Age is curiously lacking. Thus, when Eric, with two wildly successful self-help books behind him as well as a reputation for healing, discovers that his beloved wife, Cary, has an inoperable brain tumor, it’s a complicated crisis.
“On every page of your books there are two things battling for space,” a fellow guru tells him, “faith and doubt. Your faith, as it comes through in your words, must be stronger than your reader’s doubt. . . . It’s always two stories battling for space in your mind, in your heart.”
And, indeed, Eric’s father, a lowly garbage man, was so spiritually plugged into the world that he was able to save his family from thieves and perform many other minor miracles. His mother, on the other hand, was a working-class defeatist. To go outside without a sweater was to court inevitable pneumonia. Life being what it is, she was often right.
We first see Eric a few years after his wife’s death, living incognito, crushed, with only his dead wife’s dog for company. He is disturbed one stormy night by a woman named Sam, who has read his books and reveres him. He denies his identity, but the next day Sam engineers an accident — remember, there are no accidents in New Age thought — and, along with that super-intelligent dog, reveals to Eric that she’s known who he is all along, that she has had a dream about a little girl she has reason to believe might be the reincarnation of his wife.
You might expect that a book like this would be sappy to the max. Author Nicholas Montemarano, an English professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., allows himself flights of fancy with words, endows the dog with supernatural knowledge and makes the doomed wife just a little fey. In flashbacks, we see that she’s a songwriter but prefers not to write her work down, singing a song once or twice and then consigning it to the universe. It might be that the author wants to portray her as the real thing, living New Age thought, while her husband gets stuck in the “performance” of it all, basing his belief on his ability to heal his wife’s recalcitrant brain cells. I think many of us have known headstrong men who, upon discovery of an ill wife, stake their reputations and identity on keeping their mates alive.
But no matter how you read “The Book of Why,” it turns out to be an extraordinarily interesting book.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Nicholas Montemarano
Little, Brown. 302 pp. $25.99