To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2014.]

Paul O’Rourke is certainly the first dentist as a contemporary anti-hero in literature that I know of. He’s that species of character that from the opening pages of his narrating, in turn I thought was the kind of brilliant, insightful observer of life that you’d love to have as a friend, to in the next moment, finding him as irritating as a Whats App whistle on a quiet train when you are just dropping off to sleep.

With this fictional creation the author gives us someone who is continually having an internal battle. Sometimes it’s a comical wrestling but it often seems like we are hearing at least two distinct voices from this one man. Never short of an adverb but regularly short off breath, Ferris’ dentist is quick to point out that his profession has some of the highest suicide rates of any industry. He is honest enough to admit his many failings and his hypocrisy and he knows he is more selfish than the kindly female assistants in his workplace.

O’Rourke’s apparent self-obsession goes into overdrive when his business and personal identity appear to have been stolen by a patient he barely knows. Having never bothered much with the on-line world as well as slamming other people for being overly fond of their mobile phones (or as he so accurately calls them, "me-machines") he starts to fall into the same addiction and develops an email dialogue with the man who has "taken his life away." Eventually, this leads O’ Rourke to a range of vital decisions and even great personality change – "the journey" that seems to be almost a required feature of the modern novel.

What makes this book such a good read for me though is Ferris’ stimulating use of language (such as a poetic phrase like: "the implacable autism of obscene wealth.") And, what other writer would give four pages of admiration and devotion to the act of a woman moisturising with hand cream? Also, his main character’s openness builds a story that’s particularly enjoyable. While O’Rouke’s occasional stream-of-consciousness can be inane, his baseball fixation is distracting and his rapid-fire conversations sometimes mean two-page paragraphs, he is ultimately likable and maybe even lovable. But this dentist is even educational. Until this book I had not heard the proposition that Martin Luther’s Jew-bashing speeches and writings "had set the stage for roughly five centuries of unrepentant anti-Semitism."

In fact, it is O’Rouke’s (and Ferris’ real-life) fascination with Judaism and his very human feelings both towards the Jews in the story, and as a historical phenomenon, that make him much more than just a good dentist. The author’s depiction of the Plotz family could easily have been a snapshot of many European families, Jewish or gentile. In his obsession, O’Rourke is joined with another character in the book where religion, faith and identity are explored in an enlightening and humorous way.

I want to confess another common interest with O’Rourke. I too automatically find pregnant women attractive.

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