Hardcover, 352 pages
Publisher: Viking (May 2014)
Selected by Mary Mount
“Joshua Ferris has mastered the horror and absurdity of modernity like few other novelists. This Booker-shortlisted novel spoke to me, almost too much.” —Mary Mount
Paul O’Rourke is a nihilist with a dentist’s drill, a godless upscale Manhattanite with a successful practice and an aversion to the internet – until someone starts impersonating him online. The virtual O’Rourke builds a presence as a spokesperson for an obscure Biblical sect, and then it all goes to hell. Joshua Ferris’ third novel is a comedy/thriller/theological work that deals with issues of identity and connection, a fresh look at the well-examined ground that lies between virtual and tangible human interaction.
The Son of a Stranger
The mouth is a weird place. Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate – where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul might just fail to turn up.
I encouraged my patients to floss. It was hard to do some days. They should have flossed. Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years1. It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass. That’s not the dentist talking. That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point? In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide. But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, above all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”
A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tries to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones.
We call it a practice, never a business, but successful dentistry is very much a business. I started out with a windowless two-chair clinic in Chelsea. Eventually I moved into a place off Park Avenue. I had half the ground floor of an apartment complex called the Aftergood Arms.
Park Avenue is the most civilised street in the world. Doormen still dress like it’s 1940, in caps and gloves, opening doors for old dowagers and their dogs. The awnings extend to the curb so that no one gets wet on rainy days stepping in and out of cabs, and a carpet, usually green, sometimes red, runs underfoot. With a certain cast of mind, you can almost reconstruct the horse-and carriage days when the first of the nabob settlers were manoeuvering their canes and petticoats through the Park Avenue mud. Manhattan suffers its shocks. The neighbourhoods turn over. The city changes in your sleep. But Park Avenue stays Park Avenue, for better or worse – moneyed, residential, quintessentially New York.
I borrowed a lot to refurbish the new place. To pay back that money as quickly as possible, I went against the advice of the contractor, the objections of Mrs Convoy, my own better instincts, and the general protocol of dentists everywhere and ordered a floor plan without a private office.
 Flossers live between six and seven years longer than non-flossers, but non-believers note that correlation does not equal causation.