For 86 years, “the curse of the Bambino” made the simple task of being a fan of the Boston Red Sox into something truly epic: beyond faith, a downright poetic symphony of man’s perseverance in the face of struggle, as the Red Sox were invariably contenders who managed to lose it in the last minute in increasingly comic and tragic ways (i.e., the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs in ’86). But in 2004, they won the World Series, breaking the curse with a wild come-from-behind run (they were three games behind) against the most evil of villains, the Yankees. It was a miracle so amazing that it made the World Series sweep into a bit of an afterthought and changed the whole plot of the Farrelly Brothers’ film Fever Pitch, starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon.
After 2004, though: things were different. The Red Sox were good. Contenders. Winners! And the whole agony and ecstasy of being a Red Sox fan was lost to history. I’ve been waiting for someone to write about this topic, sort of: American writers love baseball, the most American sport, and the movement from perpetual romantic loserdom to breaking the curse — well, it says something about faith, and having faith, and the magical thinking that we need to get through day-to-day life as a human being.
Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is not just about being a Red Sox fan, but its protagonist, Dr. Paul O’Rourke, D.D.S, Park Avenue dentist, doesn’t have much in his life beyond the team. He may be an atheist, but he believes in the Red Sox, taping their videos on his VCR, watching the games with superstitions and ritual, leaving for every sixth inning. It’s something he learned from his father, who committed suicide when O’Rourke was young.
O’Rourke is maladjusted, possibly a crank: his days are made up of teeth, mouths, dentistry, the Red Sox, and pining over his ex-girlfriend, Connie, the office manager at his dental practice. He is someone who escaped to New York, who can mention all the great culture in the city, but he never partakes of it. He falls hard for women and the great clans that come with them, desperate for the family that comes with a life of Irish Catholicism or Judaism — and come the inevitable breakup, he turns comic stalker. He doesn’t mean to, he just loves too much.
The first-person-singular narrative means that we are immersed in the perspective of O’Rourke, and it is not much of a life at the outset. The writing can be meandering or comic, depending on if you are on this Philip Roth-ian wavelength, this Stanley Elkin jazz riff, this corny dad humor (cellphones are called “me-machines”), or you are not; I’m agnostic when it comes to sports and teeth, and the book was driving me crazy at points. I laughed a couple of times, a weird high sound that felt less gleeful and more like a punctuation. It felt like O’Rourke was just talking and talking to the point that I couldn’t get a bead on what made up his days, where his apartment was, the colors of rooms, etc. But even when it is annoying, Ferris is a writer who can draw emotion out of the way he spins one mere sentence, so you keep reading.
About a third of the way in, the book clicks into place, and a world emerges. O’Rourke is plagued with a severe case of Internet identity theft: someone makes an O’Rourke dental website, a Twitter page for Dr. Paul O’Rourke, D.D.S., and starts posting under his name on Red Sox message boards. It gets weird: religious, biblical, stuff that could be called anti-Semitic, and claims that O’Rourke is the member of a small, nearly extinct tribe from the Middle East. O’Rourke, an avowed Luddite (see: “me-machines”), is, naturally, under attack. He tries to solve it through angry emails, leading to this ridiculous, comic, tragic line: “Everyone who knows me when I post, I post gold.”
The identity theft is the start of a fool’s journey through faith, family, religion, and how to believe in something that isn’t necessarily the Red Sox (after all, they lost their magic in 2004); O’Rourke is complicated and searching, and whether or not he can find something beyond his daily rituals remains in question. The book feels like a Woody Allen movie — a stream of jokes, blunders, and comic set-ups all in service of some real questions about what it means to believe in something — and in this case, the answer isn’t “nothingness, nihilism, and moral bankruptcy.” (And like Allen’s Annie Hall, originally a murder mystery, this book started out as a detective story before editing.) There are arias of feeling in here that could make you cry, but the road to those moments can be diffuse and dense and maddening.
Ferris has, in the past, shown a gift for making something profound out of the mundane, from his first book, the very funny Then We Came to the End, to his second, The Unnamed, where mundanity became tragedy. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is rooted in mundanity (dentistry), but there’s a weird core of feeling at its source, and the way that Ferris twists subjects like the Internet and the Red Sox into a search for faith is moving and the book is staying with me, which may be the most honest thing I can say about it. Rooting for the Chicago Cubs, however — that’ll only break your heart.