Walking cure

A malady forces a lawyer to leave his neglected family for an endless, lone hike in Joshua Ferris’s masterful novel

(Brett Ryder)
By Steve Almond
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2010

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Joshua Ferris’s debut novel, “Then We Came to the End,’’ managed that rare trick in the world of belles lettres: It wowed both readers and critics, landing on the bestseller list and earning a National Book Award nomination. His follow-up arrives as one of the most anticipated books of the year.

It would have been easy enough for Ferris to return to the wry patter that energized his first book. But his strange and beguiling sophomore effort does exactly the opposite. Whereas “Then We Came’’ cast a gimlet eye on fear and loathing within the American workplace, “The Unnamed’’ is a somber investigation of individual suffering. If the first book was populated by mordant desk jockeys who spouted idyllic visions of Emersonian wandering, the second recasts this impulse as a kind of existential horror.

The central figure in “The Unnamed’’ is Tim Farnsworth, a high-powered attorney at the mercy of a mysterious condition that forces him to walk to the point of exhaustion.

Hoping to establish a foreboding mood, Ferris shows an early tendency to flog the language. He opens with an image of ice raining down “like poisoned darts,’’ and cars being “swallowed undigested’’ by snow. Later, he compares a character’s tears to “stubborn nails jerked out of brickwork.’’ It’s all too much.

Tim also makes for a lousy victim. His malady appears an outgrowth of his single-minded ambition. He takes his wife Jane for granted and largely ignores his teenage daughter, Becka.

But one of the unexpected charms of this novel is the unlikely transformation of its hero. During a self-imposed house arrest, Tim begins to recognize his daughter’s sorrow - and her resilience. There’s an oddly moving scene in which the pair bond over her favorite TV show (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’’ natch.) He must also confront his wife’s desperation, which drives her to drink. “Had he never unplugged his ears of the self-involvement that consumed him about work when he wasn’t sick, or about sickness, when he couldn’t work?’’ Tim wonders. “Had he never listened?’’

A lesser writer might have settled for this simple tale of comeuppance. But an odd thing happens halfway through “The Unnamed.’’ The plot shifts from familiar themes - marital discord, suburban anomie, legal intrigue - to the darker and more durable question of how those forsaken by fate endure.

After a four-year remission, the condition returns, and Tim succumbs to a series of Jobian miseries. Hoping to spare his family, he roams the country alone for months on end. Exposure to the elements leaves him physically disfigured, while his inability to control his body drives him mad.

Jane eventually tracks him down - in a Waffle House. “Her entire presence there was an incongruity,’’ Ferris writes. “It brightened the dismal fluorescent brutality that such chain places wore like trademarks - unmistakable lighting from the highway, the national color of insomnia and transience.’’

And yet, Tim turns her away. He believes he’s sparing Jane his affliction, though the reader comes to understand that he’s also trying to protect himself from the unbearable pleasures of the life he lost.

As Tim’s mortifications intensify, Ferris captures his spiraling thoughts and feelings with a prose that is often spellbinding. His hero’s plight becomes a grim and elegant metaphor for the spiritual restlessness of late-model capitalism: “All around him, the fluorescent illumination of tobacco ads, power-drink displays, heat-lamp chicken, postcard racks, shrink-wrapped magazines, scuffed aisles of candies and chips, and the purgatorial shuffling transients that fed off it all.’’

Tim staggers from freak weather systems to murdered cattle; his tribulations veer toward the phantasmagoric. The scene in which he encounters a pack of feral pigs reads like some suburban reimagining of Cormac McCarthy’s “Outer Dark.’’

Ferris is taking a huge risk here, as is any author who invites such comparisons. In fact, he’s reaching back to the same source as McCarthy, to the Bible, specifically the prophetic books, whose tortured leading men led the same life of forced exile and exalted deprivation.

Yet the depth of Tim’s anguish actually accentuates his brushes with joy. He becomes a fan of his daughter’s punk band, for instance, and manages to find her on tour. Their exchange - terse and bruised, but shot through with love - feels incandescent.

Ferris is also wise enough to grant Tim a final quest. When he discovers Jane is dying of cancer, he journeys to her bedside (a trip that nearly kills him; he’s traversing the country on foot). After years of being in her care, he ministers to her with great tenderness. They discover their affections very much intact, despite - and, to some degree, because of - the punishments of fate. As she lies abed, Tim brings the world to her, by sharing the details of his peregrinations.

“He realized he might have been doing it wrong for years. He might have seen interesting things had he been able to let go of the frustration and despair. He wondered what kind of life he might have had if he had paid attention from the beginning. But that would have been hard. That would have been for himself.’’

Ferris refuses to traffic in easy resolutions. It’s no mistake that Tim reaches his full human measure only in sickness. His disease may be unnamed, but it’s instantly recognizable to those of us who have turned away from our emotional and moral duties and chosen instead the wide and inviting paths of spiritual negligence.

With this brave and masterful novel, Ferris has proven himself a writer of the first order. “The Unnamed’’ poses a question that could not be more relevant to the America of 2010: Will the compulsions of our bodies defeat the contents of our souls? Will our lust for stimulation, for empty calories and narcissistic reward, overrun our highest calling - to pay attention to those we love?

Steve Almond’s newest book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,’’ is due out in April.

By Joshua Ferris
Reagan Arthur, 310 pp., $24.99