This sad and funny masterpiece is about Paul O’Rourke, a hard-working and successful Park Avenue dentist who doesn’t know where he belongs. While working five chairs at once in his insanely busy dental practice he’s also permanently on a look out for that elusive something that could be everything. He’s tried the obvious: a commitment to healthy patients, playing the banjo, streaming movies directly to TV, the Red Sox, golf. Golf had looked promising:
For two months one summer, I thought golf could be everything. For the rest of my life, I thought, I’ll put all my energy into golf, all my spare time, all my passion, and that’s what I did. I don’t think I’ve ever been so depressed.
He knows golf is not the answer when the last ball he ever putts gives him the impression, as it circles the hole, of “my small life draining into the abyss.” (So, no to golf). The Bible was a strong candidate for something that could be everything but Paul had a problem there too:
I never made it past all the talk about the firmament. The firmament is the thing, on Day 1 or 2, that divides the waters from the waters. Here you have the firmament. Next to the firmament, the waters. Stay with the waters long enough, presumably you hit another stretch of the firmament. I can’t say for sure: at the first mention of the firmament I start bleeding tears of terminal boredom. I grow restless. I flick ahead. It appears to go like this: firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus.
Paul hates social media with a passion (he calls a cell phone a me-machine) so when a website and Facebook page purporting to be that of ‘Paul O’Rourke, Park Avenue Dentist’ appear on the web, complete with accurate profiles of Paul and his staff, he pulls out all the stops to close it down and find out who the imposter is. It’s more difficult than he thought. While he’s still firing off angry emails to the imposter, ‘Paul O’Rourke, Park Avenue Dentist’ starts tweeting. His staff don’t believe it isn’t him. They are delighted that, at last, Paul has joined the twenty-first century.
This is mainly a workplace novel, and Paul’s staff are the main people in his life. We get to know them and their ways intimately. Connie, the beautiful Jewish poet-receptionist who Paul used to go out with (and with whom he is still in love), Abby his dental assistant who never talks to him and always looks vaguely accusingly at him from behind her pink face mask, and Mrs Convoy, a world-beating dental hygienist, devout Catholic widow and the bane and the solace of Paul’s life. The sparring between Mrs Convoy and Paul is a manic delight:
Say I would come in from outside and go straight to the sink to wash my hands. It didn’t matter which sink, Mrs Convoy would find me. She’d sniff like a bloodhound and then she’d say, “What exactly have you been doing?” I’d tell her and she’d say, “Why do you feel the need to lie to me?” I’d tell her and she’d say, “Scrutiny does not kill people, smoking kills people. What kind of example do you think you’re setting for your patients by sneaking off to smoke cigarettes? I’d tell her, she’d say, “They do not need a reminder of the ‘futility of it all’ from their dental professional.
(Incidentally, in one of my favourite ever descriptions of facial hair ‑ an introductory phrase right there I never thought I’d write ‑ Mrs Convoy is described as “having pale facial down, which stood up on her neck and cheeks as if trying to attract balloons.”)
Going back to the main plot line ‑ the ‘Paul O’Rourke, Park Avenue Dentist’ website, Facebook page and Twitter feed start to post increasingly strange, religious-sounding comments. During the confusion about what the sites and feeds are saying and who is saying it a patient makes contact with Paul. The patient tells him that the strange posts are referring to an early religion called Ulm which is historically contemporaneous with Judaism. There are now only a few Ulms left scattered around the world.
The Jewish factor is significant because in a back story we find out how Paul had spent a lot of time trying to make Connie’s warm, extended Jewish family like him when he was going out with her. This had involved going to Jewish weddings, festivities and even funerals, and telling reasonably bad Jewish jokes to puzzled, sometimes grieving, uncles. They’d been kind to him but it wasn’t pretty. He’d come across as desperate and anti-Semitic when all he’d wanted was to be adopted. We find out that all Paul’s romantic relationships have involved him trying, in some pathetic way, to belong to the family of his current girlfriend, right from middle school days when he was as much entranced with the cool hairy forearms of his sweetheart’s protective father as with the girl herself. (As you might have guessed, he himself has a sad family story: his much-loved father committed suicide in the bath, with a gun, when Paul was twelve.)
The Ulm thing ramps up and continues to be a major plot driver to the end. Who or what are the Ulms? Could the Ulms be something that could be everything? Or are they something that should be nothing? And why are they using Paul’s name? There are some fun suspense-mystery shenanigans in pursuit of the truth behind the Ulms. (Although I found some of their ‘history’ a tad too firmamenty.) But the central journey for Paul remains an inward one, his search for a place to belong.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is always funny and often painfully funny. Paul is a brilliant, needy, rude, selfish yuppie, but he’s also a deeply kind and compassionate man (you can see that in the way he treats his vulnerable patients). You end up barracking for him, even though sometimes you’d also like to punch him on the nose.
This book has interesting things to say about work, social media, the difference between being connected and belonging, and the importance of flossing. It’s shortlisted for the Booker Prize and would be a worthy winner.