Offhand, the practice of preventative dentistry doesn’t seem like a portal into discussions of religion and death. And discussions of religion and death don’t seem like apt gateways to comedy, either. Leave it to Joshua Ferris (author of Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed) to barge on through both doors. Here’s how Dr. Paul O’Rourke, his dentist/protagonist, puts it:
The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate — where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to show up.
I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point?
But not even Ferris could make a novel entirely about floss interesting (though I imagine he’d have a better shot than most authors). The plot device that keeps you turning pages here is one of stolen identity. Dr. O’Rourke is a ranter against social media, iPhone addiction, and the like, but suddenly one of his office staff notices that his practice has a website — then a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Annoying, but no real harm done — at least until these false identities of his are used in chat rooms to promote an obscure (fictional?) religion, which edges uncomfortably close to antisemitism. Suddenly he’s attached to his iPhone, following the controversies stirred up by the fictional Dr. O’Rourke, emailing “himself,” and defending himself to his staff, his Jewish ex-girlfriend, and her family, all of whom he’s convinced believe that he is secretly writing all the questionable material.
If it sounds like an existential crisis, it is, kind of. But it’s also very funny. I’ll admit that I bogged down a bit in the extended passages about the Amalekites (the religion, which apparently did exist in Old Testament times — though I imagine the belief system took a different form than the one described here). But the characters were engaging and memorable, if (especially in O’Rourke’s case) a little unhinged. As Ron Charles, book reviewer for The Washington Post puts it in his review, “You can rinse now. But you won’t get the taste of this harrowing story out of your mouth.”
author photo: Beowulf Sheehan