I can't remember now how I wound up reading the Kindle sample of Start Without Me, but I devoured the book. It is the second novel written by Joshua Max Feldman, and it made such an impression on me that I read the first one too -- The Book of Jonah.
Start Without Me begins inside the head of a man trying to maintain a fragile hold on sobriety. We also meet a flight attendant with troubles of her own; the two of them, improbably, spend most of a day together. The thing that simultaneously hooked me and squashed me was Feldman's depiction of the impact of disordered alcohol use: the all-but-unquellable yearning, the slow erosion of the will (seen especially in the brutal rendering of a character we meet late in the book), the costs of sobriety. One of the things Hollywood gets wrong about substance abuse is the relentlessness of it, the way that continuing to choose freedom over enslavement is painful for a long time. Feldman writes about it so persuasively that I thought he must have been describing his own experiences. (That doesn't seem to be the case, based on the acknowledgments.) This is a hopeful book, but it's not a cheap or easy kind of hope. Having just made it sound like an Anti-Festival of Bleakness and Despair, I hasten to add that it's unexpectedly funny and full of surprises.
The Book of Jonah has a similar structure, in that we're mostly alternating between the perspectives of the two main characters, one male and one female. I suggest that you not read the reviews, some of which give away too much about the female character's story -- the element of surprise was exactly right. The title character is a corporate lawyer in NYC, whose world is upended when he begins getting intermittent glimpses of the divine.
I have read a lot of books in which non-believers have attempted to describe religious experience, and a lot of books in which believers have attempted to describe secular perspectives, and often they are pretty eye-roll-inducing. Feldman does something remarkable here: he captures the satisfactions of Jonah's secular life and then also offers a persuasive glimpse of the eternal. (Huh, that sentence sounds implausible now that I have written it, but read the book and tell me what you think.) Most unexpectedly of all, he intersperses hilarious slapstick-y moments. Somehow, both the divine visions and the slapstick work together. Maybe it's because their propinquity reflects a fundamental truth: life is both preposterous and sublime, sometimes in whiplash-o-genic succession.
Some of you need to read it so we can chat about it afterward, okay? Even though it's called The Book of Jonah, there are echoes of the book of Judith as well-- the Judith character strikes an unexpected blow against a Holofernes-esque character. I want to talk more about that, and about the climax that teeters on the very brink of absurd but pulls it off. I want to talk about the idea of watching (unwelcome surveillance plays a role in both books) versus seeing. I am still thinking about the tenderness with which Jonah comes to regard human vulnerability -- tenderness with its connotations of pain as well as of compassion.