Holy Water Holy Water by James P. Othmer
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2010
Pages: 304

Othmer’s debut novel, The Futurist, was something of a mixed bag, though ultimately I enjoyed it and thought it represented a promising start to a good (if not exactly groundbreaking) writing career. Four years later, Othmer offers up Holy Water as a sophomore effort, and while it’s a palatable read, the author not only makes the same mistakes as in his first book, but has in fact crafted a much less compelling story.

Our protagonist is Henry Tuhoe, a man in dire personal straits: he hates his job working in the deodorant division of a faceless megacorporation, and his marriage to his young wife is falling apart at the seems. Meanwhile, he has a difficult time relating to just about anybody but his work friend, Warren, and is an enthusiastic subscriber of the secretary’s pornography website. It’s the sort of wacky premise you’d see in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, but a little less nihilistic and more slapstick. It’s also very much the initial setup of The Futurist, when an introverted career businessman hits an existential crisis, jets off to an exotic locale, confuses romantic dis-inhibition with love, and sports a complete lack of affect that either indicates a psychological disorder or bad writing. Even Othmer’s love of small-batch bourbon and craft beer is reiterated here as prominently as in his debut.

Though the book begins flashily in medias res with Tuhoe watching a burning river, the real story begins with a pedestrian series of insults. Tuhoe’s relationship with his wife has deteriorated ever since moving into the suburbs, and she wants him to get a vasectomy, beginning a long and rather strained motif of emasculation. Tuhoe hates his running focus groups for deodorant, working in an office environment that is simultaneously derivative of every corporate comedy in existence and underwritten to the point of paucity. To either side of him is his best friend who loves his job and the friendly secretary who is a personification of sexuality, and whose eventual coupling is lately stated but early foretold. Amidst all of this hamfisted symbolism, Tuhoe spends the first half of his novel generally being unhappy, and doing all the things that one might expect of a man in a midlife crisis played close to the vest. Much of it serves no apparent purpose other than to flesh out the inanity of his existence: weekly guy nights with the neighborhood men, consuming large quantities of alcohol and meat and complaining about all the things wrong with their suburban lives. At center stage is Tuhoe’s unraveling relationship with his wife, whom Othmer writes as half tragic meltdown and half shrill sitcom dimwit. This latter characterization effectively destroys any sympathy we have for her and removes any of the tension that may have existed, replaced by a satisfying and reasonable assurance that the Tuhoes’ relationship will be gone by book’s end.

In order to escape a corporate outsourcing of the underarm division in which he works, Tuhoe agrees to go to the fictional kingdom of Galado on the Chinese/Indian border in order to spearhead a new call center for the eco-friendly bottled water company Tuhoe’s parent corporation has just purchased. Galado is, as one may have supposed, a small country in cultural turmoil: comically conservative and spiritual under its old king, it is now being shoved toward modernity by its crown prince as the king languishes in terminal infirmity. The abrupt and perpendicular change creates a situation not unlike that of China and India, namely the concurrent existence of gleaming cities, Western culture, and high technology with grinding poverty, primitive villages, and stubborn traditionalism; the main difference is that China and India have the space and population, where Galado is a tiny kingdom whose transition is largely artificial and therefore disastrous. Most Galadan citizens don’t even have access to clean drinking water; yes, the irony inherent in a bottled water company locating its call center in a country without reliable plumbing is intended, and indeed we are bludgeoned with it over and over again.

Tuhoe immediately makes friends with the king (who is described as a “sociopath” even though he never actually exhibits any sociopathic behavior) and a less-than-honorable Australian businessman; he also immediately falls for his liaison, Maya, whose brother is a member of a resistance faction. Having been recently liberated by his midlife crisis, divorce, and at least one near-death experience, Tuhoe decides that he’d prefer to do something good for Galado; it’s a typical sort of “Western imperialist” friction, even though Tuhoe personally isn’t very imperialistic and in fact hates his company and his job. In other words, the situation is exactly you might expect from an fictional developing country and a semi-anti-hero.

The only surprise to be had, in fact, is that there isn’t much of an ending to be had at all. A sudden national emergency provides a final narrative conflict, but every other source of narrative tension heretofore established is simply dropped or dismissed or ignored without resolution in any real sense: Tuhoe’s relationship with the Australian, Tuhoe’s relationship with his wife (sort of), Tuhoe’s relationship with Maya, Tuhoe’s charity work in Galado, Galado’s prince and his plan for modernization, Tuhoe’s friendship with his movie-making personal trainer in America, his relationship with the pornstar secretary, &c.

One of my complaints with The Futurist was its glib, “happily ever after” chapter; Holy Water does a 180° turn and fails to resolve anything, good or, and I don’t know if this is because Othmer intended it to be ambiguous or because he didn’t know how to finish it without sounding glib. All we know is that Tuhoe is still an emotional wreck and by the book’s end has no idea what to do with his life, now that everyone he cares about is remote.

It’s a disappointing ending to a disappointing book. Based on the promise of Othmer’s debut, I was hoping for so much more.

§6121 · November 19, 2010 · Tags: , , , ·

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