So here’s the thing. I had been gagging to read Ferris’s debut novel, Then We Came To The End, since it was published to near universal acclaim a few years ago. I finally got round to starting it at the end of March this year and hated it so much that I had to give up after 100 pages as I just couldn’t face reading another word. I hated all the characters and their tiresome situations. Having now read his latest, it affirms my suspicion about why I had such a huge reaction to his debut. It’s not because he’s not any good, but rather because he is SO good. He nailed a scenario that I currently deal with 40 hours a week and absolutely loathe in his first book, so I had no desire to spend my downtime reading more of the same, thank you very much. I figure since I’m not a dentist, not interested in baseball and have never had my identity stolen, I would be on safer ground with his latest, Man Booker Prize longlisted, work.
Our hero is Paul O’Rourke. He’s 40 years old, a dentist and baseball fanatic and he’s reached the point where he’s beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to life. An insomniac, he’s increasingly grumpy and feels ever more out of step with modern life. And then a website for his dental practice appears, one with odd religious messages where his dental credits should be. Then follows a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a presence on many message boards. None of them are the real Paul, but they all seem to urge him onwards to something bigger than his current situation.
His search for something bigger takes the reader through a lot of Paul’s history (some of which is properly laugh out loud funny as well as major cringe inducing stuff), his current day to day treating of all kinds of dental treats (all in unflinching prose, those who don’t like visiting the dentist should approach with caution), and a much bigger search for himself through Judaism and whether or not his family are really descended from the race of Ulms or not. It’s a lot to take in, and while it works, it does also feel like two different book ideas stitched together. It somehow manages to be very funny and sobering at the same time. Some of the sentences land like a gut punch. Ferris is prodigiously talented and very distinctive. If there were some literary version of the Pepsi Challenge, you’d pick him out of the line up every single time.
It’s a shaggy dog story, to be sure, and one that might be structurally a little rough around the edges, but one that’s engrossing and evocatively written, that it’s no surprise Ferris has found himself on the first Booker Prize longlist to allow American writers to be considered. Whether he is on the shortlist in a few weeks time remains to be seen, but I would not be surprised if he were. An unusual and totally absorbing book.