Prophet and Survivor
The Book of Jonah: A Novel
By Joshua Max Feldman
Henry Holt and Company, 352 pages
Jacob Jacobstein, the protagonist of Joshua Max Feldman’s continually surprising debut novel, is happy. A 32-year-old New York lawyer on the verge of making partner, he has two girlfriends, plenty of cash, and a general sense of good fortune that washes over him at pleasant intervals: “He would climb into a taxi on a Friday night with crisp bills from the ATM in his pocket and Sylvia (or Zoey) to meet; he would be drunk at 4:00 a.m. with a great slice of grease-dripping pizza in his hand; and he would count himself incredibly lucky…to be who he was, when he was, where he was.” He is not given to introspection; in general, his concerns tend to be “immediate, tangible, billable.”
Imagine his shock, then, when he ducks into the bathroom at a party and is slammed by a vision of New York destroyed, humanity stripped naked, and a string of burning Hebrew letters he is unable to read. Jonah never doubts that his visions (which continue over the weeks that follow) are real, but he lacks the spiritual and intellectual depth to figure out what the visions are urging him to do. So he tries desperately to ignore them and return to his vapid existence, but it’s no use; in an ecstasy of confused motives, Jonah dumps both girlfriends, alienates his family, torpedoes his career, and begins drinking like a fish. Finally, in unconscious imitation of his biblical namesake, he flees.
Judith Bulbrook is Jonah’s spiritual and intellectual opposite. The brilliant, peculiar, adored only child of two university professors, Judith is as intense as Jonah is hapless, though her life (like his) is decidedly secular. In lieu of worshiping God, Judith studies:
Her most profound moments of religious feeling came not in temple, but rather when she would be in her bedroom working on a paper or problem set, and hear her father typing away in his study; hear her mother gently, quietly reciting verse. Then Judith would feel…that God was real, imminently real, and they were all a part of something much larger than themselves.
Judith’s happiness is shattered not by a mere vision of destruction: On September 11, 2001, just a few weeks after she arrives at Yale, a plane with her parents in it crashes into the World Trade Center.
Despite these tragic and serious themes, The Book of Jonah turns out to be—who’d have thought it?—tremendously entertaining. It’s not because of the action, which in any case isn’t terribly complex; mostly, Judith and Jonah stumble around, lonely and confused, in the wake of their respective cataclysms. (Jonah goes to Amsterdam, where he smokes a lot of dope and broods; Judith goes to graduate school, then to France, where she has a lot of sex and broods.) It’s not because of Judith and Jonah themselves, although both have reasonably good senses of humor, and it’s not because of the writing, which regularly bogs down in excessive description.
Rather, the book succeeds because Feldman is a master of plot and pacing, with a preternatural gift for keeping his readers hooked. He knows, two seconds before we do, just when Judith is about to become depressing or Jonah absurd, and deftly switches story lines in the nick of time. He engineers a series of parallels (Judith and Jonah both have their noses broken by spurned lovers, to name just one) with the lightest of touches. And he delays and delays and delays their inevitable meeting (which Jonah botches, thus necessitating another hundred pages of frustration and suspense). By the time Judith and Jonah do end up together, the reader practically faints with delight.
The Book of Jonah doesn’t pretend to solve all the great theological mysteries in the world, but it is more than a rom-com with a vaguely biblical gloss. At the end, in a lovely coda that lifts the novel far above the quotidian, Jonah finally fathoms the significance of all the revelations he fought so hard to flee. As Jonah rejoins “our vast and mysterious world,” he realizes he has managed to find not only Judith, but also peace and happiness; grace and goodness; comfort, and a purpose in life. It’s a simple, sweet conclusion, mysterious, even transcendent. And all of it feels earned.