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July 28, 2014

'At the Bottom of Everything': Childhood friends take different roads to peace from old ghosts

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Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2013 12:11 am

“At the Bottom of Everything”

by Ben Dolnick; Pantheon, 2013; 239 pages; $$24.95.

At the bottom of Ben Dolnick’s new novel are troubling questions. How far can one friend be expected to go — how far will he go — for another? Can friendship — will friendship — survive the caprices of time? Can friendship ever be fully realized? Or even proved?

In their youth, Adam Sanecki and Thomas Pell become fast friends. Adam finds himself spending more and more time at Thomas’ home, feeling awfully comfortable around the Pell parents. Actually, neither young man is especially happy in his skin. The nebulous terrors of adolescence only intensify that unhappiness. Defensively, they cling to each other.

Then there’s the adolescent prank and the accident that results, an accident that haunts each boy in different ways. Guilt consumes Thomas even as guilt remains on the periphery of Adam’s life, and the young men grow apart.

The first part of the novel tracks Adam’s journey from college graduate to tutor for “sullen eleven-year-olds” as “a way of making a reasonable amount of money without working particularly hard or doing anything more soul-crushing than absolutely necessary.” To lick his wounds from a recent break-up, he has begun sleeping with the mother of one of his students.

Adam’s days are as leisurely as Dolnick’s prose at this point. Every night he drifts through Facebook looking for his ex and a way to lay claim to something approaching the life of an adult.

Then, out of the blue, emails from Thomas’ parents arrive asking if Adam has had contact with their son. Subsequent emails become more insistent, begging for help in locating Thomas and insisting that finding him is a matter of life and death.

Adam agrees to go in search of Thomas — whom he hasn’t seen in a decade — either finding him “or (more likely) declaring him unfindable and heading home myself with a sad story and a clear conscience (or at least a no-less-clear-than-before conscience).”

It is at this point, as Adam takes off on the most unlikely of endeavors, that the novel transitions from a leisurely account of youthful misadventure to an unqualified spiritual odyssey that concludes in a cave in India.

Ultimately, there is a genuine sense of urgency in “At the Bottom of Everything.” It transmutes into a desperate journey in search of a former friend and peace from the ghosts haunting two men. That Dolnick can observe each man’s passage with gentle, transcendent prose, that he can allow closure for Adam and Thomas — or not — are reason enough to make this remarkable journey.

Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.

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