Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Enlightening Dark of the Cave: At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick

My praise of Ben Dolnick’s new novel At the Bottom of Everything begins with this scenario: It is 2 a.m. and I’m lying in bed, eyes snapped open like windowshades, unable to sleep because I’m thinking about Thomas and Adam, the main characters in Dolnick’s book.  I know, beyond any uncertainty, that I will flip back the covers, rise from that bed, and finish the book.

I’ve reached that point in the novel when—as sometimes happens with the best of novels—everything else in life (including sleep) falls away into unimportance and finishing the story becomes the supreme, uninterruptable task set before you.  Fifty pages from the end of At the Bottom of Everything, Adam has traveled to India in search of his childhood friend Thomas who is now lost, both bodily and in the corridors of his mind.  Both men are in their twenties and are trying to deal with a terrible accident for which they were responsible as reckless teenagers.  Guilt has wracked them each in separate ways and they drifted apart over the years—Adam (the novel’s narrator) is now a tutor who’s having sex with the mother of one of his students, and Thomas has seemed to disappear off the face of the earth.  His worried parents reach out to Adam in hopes he can track him down.  Though Adam resists being pulled back into Thomas’ life, he also knows it’s inevitable.  He tells us on the first page: “I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard.”

That’s on the first page of the novel and by now, at 2 a.m. on a sleepless night, my own dashboard lights are blinking.  I am fully invested in the story, which at first meanders and ping-pongs back and forth between the present agonies of Adam’s love affairs and memories of his time together with Thomas when they were an unlikely couple at their school, “one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.”

After more than 180 pages (of good, stellar writing, I might add), At the Bottom of Everything has turned a corner from interesting to compulsive.  I’m now in a go-kart rolling downhill, no helmet, fingers white-knuckling a steering wheel.  To experience the final pages of Dolnick’s novel is to read at a jarring, tooth-rattling pace.

Adam has tracked Thomas to a cave in India where, apparently, he has sojourned for spiritual enlightenment.  We’re guided into the cave and things really get tenser and bleaker inside as Adam ventures forward, the darkness pressing in like a clenched hand.  Dolnick likewise pressed me against the page with passages like this:
At some point maybe a hundred feet in, the cave, for what I could see of it, narrowed dramatically.  There was rubble and water around me, but the enterable part, now, was not much bigger than the space under a table.  Carved on a big rock next to this tunnel entrance was another of the little sitting figures from outside.  I’d thought that what I’d done already counted as searching the cave, but apparently to that point I’d only been milling around the lobby.  So in I went.  There are so few occasions for crawling in an adult’s life, I felt like I’d almost forgotten the mechanics of it.  Palm, palm, knee, knee, palm, palm, knee, knee.  It reminded me of crawling through the blue whale’s veins at the Natural History Museum.  When had that been?  The echoing breathing, the feeling of tininess.  I am not afraid of caves.  After fifty or so feet the tunnel took a turn, and to go on (I was now officially to the point where going on was easier than going back), I had to do a pull-up onto a little ledge, which I didn’t realize until I was back on all fours held a pool of water almost a foot deep.  “Oh, Thomas?  Thomas?  Can you hear me?  I hate you very much, Thomas.  You’re a motherfucking idiot, Thomas.  Can you hear me, you fucking moron?  I’m about to leave you.”  My knees and shins and hands were now soaked and freezing; I pulled on my sweatshirt, but that seemed only to make me heavier, not warmer.  To do a U-turn now would have entailed scraping the top of my head on the wall.   Only by making certain promises to myself could I keep from panicking completely: If it gets any narrower, I’ll turn around.  If it gets to where I’m not absolutely certain which direction the entrance is, I’ll turn around.  “I hate you so fucking much, Thomas, I really do.  I’m going to go home and I’m going to be clean and happy and you’re going to be fucking dead here, and it isn’t going to be my fault.  Are you happy now?  Are you purified?”
Purification is at the heart of At the Bottom of Everything, as is enlightenment. Dolnick subtly asks big questions: What is our responsibility to the lives of others?  Should we take it upon ourselves to rescue lost souls?  How do we forgive ourselves for bad deeds?  Is it ever possible to move on from the errors of our past?

As a guru tells Adam: “’Before the mind…can be…clear…the guilt must be…’  He made a gesture like someone pulling out a vegetable by the roots. ‘You act, but do not…understand.’”  Throughout the novel, Adam’s quest is to reach the point where he first understands, then acts; or, put another way, realizing the why of the what.  It’s fascinating to watch him go from a fretful live-wire sparking erratically, to someone who is more centered and accepting of his faults.

Though Adam’s parenthetical asides sometimes interrupt the flow of otherwise good sentences, there is a vulnerability to his character which drew me close to him during our brief, 239-page relationship.  I wanted, more than anything to see him pull out of the spiral of guilt—which Dolnick so wonderfully captures in these paragraphs:
      Remembering the accident, after spending a serious chunk of my life avoiding thinking about it, I’ve found myself wondering: So how did the guilt not kill me?  How did I manage to go to class or apply to college or to worry about girls or to do anything, really, other than pay secret visits to Mira Batra’s grave and weep?
      And the only answer I can give myself, which might not make particular sense, is that I think it did wreck my life, but maybe only in the way that the collapse of an underground water-pipe system would wreck the life of a city.  Which is to say: thoroughly but also, for a while at least, invisibly.
By the time he reaches India and he is stuck in that cave—which functions so well as metaphor, especially when his flashlight batteries die and the light goes out, “shrinks and closes in on itself like the last gulp of water down a bathtub drain”—when he is at this point, truly at the bottom of everything, that’s when I snapped awake and got out of bed.

At that point, finishing the novel became the most important immediate task at hand.  I had to get to the end and all I could think was, “Our Father who art in Heaven, please don’t let me die before page 239.”  I worried about a heart attack, a blood vessel bursting, an airplane engine randomly falling through the sky and crashing down onto the spot where I sat holding At the Bottom of Everything in my hands.

As you can see, I’m still here.  Thanks to two cups of coffee and a series of tooth-rattling sentences, I made it through to the satisfying end.  And I am a better man, a richer reader, for doing so.

Which is not to say I didn’t take a nap the next day to catch up on lost sleep.

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