"And I told her ..."

Joshua Ferris brings his working writer's style to Austin

Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris (Photo by Rod Machen)

Joshua Ferris first came onto to my radar in 2010 with the publication of The New Yorker's '20 Under 40' collection. Among that group of young authors, Ferris stood out with his engaging style and witty banter.

Now on his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Ferris continues to earn his place among well-respected contemporary writers and brought his newest work to Book People on Thursday for a reading.

In both the Q&A and conversation with him before the event, Ferris paints himself as simply a working writer, no matter how much his agent might like to brandish his awards, which include the prestigious PEN/Hemingway award.

"I don't try to pick it apart too much," he said in response to how he developed his literary style. "I just go to work.”

Ferris claims his appearance on lists like the '20 Under 40" are great for publicity but of little help in the day-to-day business of grinding out fiction. He believes this kind of anointing "can't stand in for anything," though it probably does help him to at least be reviewed widely.

The selection he read was from the beginning of his new novel and succinctly introduces us to the protagonist antihero, a dentist by the name of Paul O'Rourke, and his overly-protective lead dental assistant, Betsy Convoy.

Paul is a mess: He’s an atheist who’s interested in religion, a quasi-Luddite obsessed with his iPhone, and a Red Sox fan living in New York. As the story moves forward, all of these contradictions create trouble for our unlovable main character.

Betsy tries her best to help him and acts as a stand in for the best face of the faithful, bringing her Catholic sensibilities to everything she does. As Paul struggles with his place in this increasingly complex work, he meets others that make him question core parts of himself.

One of Ferris’ clever stylistic choices was on display in his reading as a conversation between Betty and Paul consisted of her talking and questioning followed by a reply like “And I told her.” It was the literary equivalent of a Bob Newhart telephone call, putting all of the emphasis on Betty and using her reactions to paint a portrait of Paul. A well executed move.

In this age of atheists and fundamentalists yelling past each other, incorporating religion into a novel is a bold choice. In Ferris’ way of thinking, not only can religion be used in fiction, but the novel may be the only appropriate venue for exploring such a contentious yet important issue. It’s the subtlety and nuance the novel affords that makes this possible.

While he’s still a young man, Ferris turns 40 this year, pushing him out of the “young and promising” bracket and into the realm of the seasoned vet. With his continued good work, he deserves the accolades that keep coming his way.

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