The swift, improbable conclusion of “The Book of Jonah” reminds me of my mother’s reactions to many Hollywood endings: “only in the movies.”
As the title suggests, Joshua Max Feldman’s novel is patterned — with great variation but appropriate chapter titles — along the lines of the Bible story. Feldman’s Jonah is told — very indirectly — what to do; doesn’t do it; then foolishly tries, only to self-destruct and ultimately do what’s right.
For the first 56 pages, Jonah Jacobstein, 32, is not very likable. Exhausting himself to make partner at New York’s “oldest and most-prestigious law firm,” Jonah is totally unobservant, drinks to excess and is planning to move in with Sylvia Quinn, a successful, placid blonde of physical perfection. (In New York, he can’t find a Jewish girl?) He is ending a 10-year now-and-again relationship with Zoey, a less-perfect brunette who’s anxious, underemployed, debt-ridden and Jonah’s lover during Sylvia’s business trips.
As the story begins, Jonah converses with a Chasid while waiting out a brief downpour outside their subway exit. The self-assured Chasid toys with Jonah, calling his world like that of Nineveh: “gold, fineries, vast armies … their body is clothed but their soul is naked.” He asks Jonah if he wouldn’t rather be among the righteous.
Jonah is getting the gold, having won a big settlement. Partnership seems certain when he’s assigned to a pharmaceutical conglomerate’s defense of a small company’s patent suit. Conglomerate memos show that it stole the inventor’s idea, but Jonah expects victory from prolonged courtroom obfuscations that will send the plaintiff into bankruptcy.
In a celebratory mood, he goes to a cousin’s birthday party. Very drunk, he darts into a small restroom where he has a vision: himself as aged, then New York destroyed and then in the mirror two Hebrew words saying “Jonah, here I am.”
More visions follow, including suddenly seeing everyone naked — some young men’s dream, maybe, but in bulk, along New York’s sidewalks, disturbing and depressing.
Overcome with conscience, he offers to spill the patent truth to the Wall Street Journal, stupidly texting on his company’s cellphone. He’s fired the next day. Then at the lease signing for their apartment, he tells Sylvia of his infidelity and she smashes his nose with a stapler. He runs pathetically to Zoey, who rids herself of him.
He begins to think he sees the Chasid everywhere; in a dream, Jonah is accepting his partnership while a Chasid pelts him with matza balls.
Just as Jonah hits bottom, we start a second story: Judith, overachieving daughter of two college professors, valedictorian of her college prep school, summa cum laude graduate of Yale. As she works toward a Ph.D., her parents suddenly die, and she descends into moneyed self-pity and self-destruction.
The two stories run parallel, as we wait for their inevitable crossing, which occurs briefly in Amsterdam; she is a traveling businesswoman, and he is doing little but marijuana while sleeping on a houseboat — as in a whale, perhaps? The two have little in common but their biblical names, differently dysfunctional lives, noses broken by lovers and now-ignored Jewish backgrounds — although he’s only half from his father. He is intrigued, then sees her sobbing and runs away.
Jonah has a second “here I am” vision, accompanied by the words: “Go there and offer the words inscribed in your heart.”
So just as in the movies, the boy who finds and loses the girl — herself a lost soul — sets out to find her again. Does he? You’ll have to read the book, its segments with titles such as: “But Jonah set out to flee,” “The ship was in danger of breaking up,” “They took up Jonah and cast him forth into the sea” and “Jonah upon the dry land.”
Warning: Those allergic to the F-word will get a rash.
“Jonah” is quite interesting and charming, if a bit peculiar, and — knowing both Bible story and Hollywood — a little predictable.
Happy ever after? Perhaps.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.