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A Dentist Confronts The Gaping Maw Of Life In 'To Rise Again'

"Pessimism, skepticism, complaint, and outrage," New York dentist Paul O'Rourke explains to his devoutly religious hygienist. "That's why we were put on earth."

You won't find that on a motivational poster, of course, but to be fair, O'Rourke — the world-weary protagonist of Joshua Ferris' third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour — comes by his nihilism honestly. His dental practice is a success, but the rest of his life is a shambles. His last romantic relationship, with his young office manager, ended badly — as did all the ones before that — for reasons that were entirely his fault. He's spent his life wanting nothing more than a Red Sox championship — his father, also a Sox diehard, committed suicide before historically unlucky Boston pulled it off in 2004.

But even after his beloved Sox break their 86-year-long championship drought, O'Rourke just feels worse. What's left to hope for when you get the thing you want the most? "Everything was almost something," he muses, "but something — and here was the rub — could never be everything."

O'Rourke's life gets even more complicated when he finds a website, a Facebook account, and a Twitter feed, all under his name — created by an impostor with unclear motives. When he tracks down the people who have stolen his identity, he finds they claim to be members of the Ulms, an ancient sect with roots in the Middle East. Why their sudden interest in an Irish-American dentist from New England? Because, they explain, he's one of them, and they want him to learn about his heritage. O'Rourke is skeptical, but finds himself drawn into their world, obsessed, even as he doubts nearly everything they say.

The plot might sound unusual, but don't be fooled — it's at least twice as weird as you think, and countless times more entertaining. (It's rare that you start to like a book before it even begins, but the novel is preceded by perhaps the funniest epigraph in recent American literature — no spoilers, but it's perfect and hilarious.)

The real fun begins with the text, of course, and Ferris draws the reader in with the very first page. He's one of the country's funniest novelists, able to describe characters with succinct, hilarious turns of phrase — for example, O'Rourke's dental hygienist, Betsy Convoy, is "like an unhappy docent. You got the impression you were about to go on a boring tour of something edifying and that she would make it as punitive as possible."

The humor flags a bit, necessarily, as the novel progresses and O'Rourke finds himself more frustrated, more obsessed with the sect that won't stop pursuing him. It hardly matters, though — O'Rourke is one of the most original characters you'll encounter in fiction. He's a well-meaning wreck of a man, making earnest attempts to get people to like him, all of which backfire in darkly hilarious ways. He's a man who's given up, but somehow can't give up trying.

And somehow, out of this deeply twisted comic novel, Ferris finds a stirring, deeply felt message about faith, though not necessarily a positive one. O'Rourke eventually learns that the Ulms are unique in at least one respect — they believe in a god who doesn't want to be worshipped. "God has instructed His people to doubt," explains one of them. It's a message that appeals to O'Rourke, an atheist — a religion that requires you, essentially, not to believe in it.

Of course, there's more to it than that, and there's more to this novel than can be described in one (or, frankly, many) reviews. Suffice it to say that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour isn't just one of the best novels of the year, it's one of the funniest, and most unexpectedly profound, works of fiction in a very long time. Something can never be anything, as O'Rourke notes, but Ferris' triumphant book is everything you could want from a novel of faith and its opposite — whatever that may be.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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