Every Open Mouth a Grave
- BuyTo Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
Viking, 337 pp, £16.99, May 2014, ISBN 978 0 670 91773 0
The narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel is a rich, white, garrulous, sexist, misanthropic New Yorker with a troubled childhood, now in early middle age, wondering what the point of it all is. But Paul O’Rourke has one redeeming feature: he’s a dentist. Which means that rather than pondering the mysteries of the universe and his place in it while staring into space, he instead thinks about the meaning of life, or more often the lack of it, as he’s peering into the brightly lit mouths of his patients:
My last patient of the day was a five-year-old complaining of a loose tooth. I had the parents pegged for the type that would send their child to see a brain specialist if they heard a playmate had pulled baby’s hair … If these fretters felt the need to bring their kid in because of a loose baby tooth, I’d happily humour them. Which is what I thought I was doing when I focused the overhead inside the girl’s mouth. But then I found seven cavities … They were giving the kid a lollipop every night to help her go to sleep … They wouldn’t feed her anything without an organic label on it … but they let her lie in bed ten hours a night rotting her mouth out so that she’d stop crying and fall asleep. People have all this resentment against their parents for fucking them up, but they never realise, the minute they have a kid, that they cease being the child so fondly victimised in their hearts and start being the benighted perpetrators of unfathomable pain.
This was what I had tried to impress upon Connie. She wanted kids, I didn’t.
Connie is his ex-girlfriend and current practice manager. This isn’t especially awkward, but only because O’Rourke’s relationships with everyone, ex or not, are fantastically awkward. The other two indispensable members of his staff are Abby, the dental assistant, and Mrs Convoy, the hygienist. Mrs Convoy is a dentist’s widow and ‘devout Roman Catholic’. O’Rourke acknowledges her professional importance to him, while describing her appearance in shamelessly misogynist and gerontophobic terms, dwelling on ‘her splayed AARP breasts’ and ‘pale facial down, which stood straight up on her neck and cheeks as if trying to attract balloons’. Abby is a silent and disconcerting presence, glowering at him (or so he thinks) from behind her pink paper mask on the other side of the patient’s chair. She doesn’t speak to him at any point in the novel; when she eventually quits it takes him a minute to notice that the woman sitting across from him isn’t Abby but ‘that diminutive temp I disliked’. Connie too started working for him as a temp, but he soon found himself falling for her – ‘cunt gripped’, in his formulation – and on her second day offered her a permanent job. Six months later, ‘drinks on O’Rourke Dental put us alone at a dive bar one night, and lubricious confessions poured from us both, and after that we were a couple.’ It didn’t last long.
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