Joshua Ferris takes on big questions of faith in ‘To Rise Again at a Decent Hour’

With his first novel, Joshua Ferris immediately struck a nerve in the zeitgeist. Set in a Chicago ad agency in the grim aftermath of the bubble bust and narrated by its increasingly paranoid employees with a collective “we,” Then We Came to the End was funny, fresh and poignant, a National Book Award finalist that succeeded not only on its wit and intelligence but also its scarily accurate depiction of modern office life.

At first, you might think Ferris’ latest book taps into an equally topical, relevant and terrifying subject: identity theft. But To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns out to be a bit of a bait and switch operation. Its protagonist, lonely, fretful Manhattan dentist Paul O’Rourke, does discover that someone has started to impersonate him online, creating a website for his practice as well as a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which spurts out odd, obscure, somewhat offensive missives. (Example: “No more about the six million until OUR losses and OUR suffering and OUR history have finally been acknowledged.”)

But instead of examining how technology isolates us, Ferris turns his attention to weightier matters, questions of faith and our need to believe in something greater than ourselves (Paul starts with the Red Sox and finds himself stumbling in the direction of God). We are talking about nothing less than the meaning of life here.

The concept is sound, and the ambition admirable: Ferris, who also wrote the novel The Unnamed and was chosen as one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers in 2010, is adept at conveying the desperation and frustrations of contemporary life. But despite its promising start, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour becomes needlessly bogged down in repetition and lengthy descriptions of obscure (and possibly fake) religious texts. It feels longer than it is.

Before that happens, though, Paul is a thoroughly entertaining sad sack, a walking contradiction who’s simultaneously addicted to his cellphone — he calls it his “me machine” — and contemptuous of others too attached to theirs. His personal relationships have ended badly, the most recent heartbreak courtesy of Connie Plotz, one of his employees, whose Jewish family he longs to join. With that an impossibility, he finds himself seeking something, anything, to fill the hole inside him. Hard work? Watching baseball? Playing golf?

But all passions are transitory: “Everything was always something, but something — and here was the rub — could never be everything,” he explains. “A thriving practice couldn’t be everything. A commitment to healthy patients and an afternoon mochaccino and pizza Fridays just couldn’t be everything. … Streaming movies directly to the TV was almost everything when first available, but soon fell off to just barely something. The Red Sox had been everything for a long time, but they disappointed me in the end.” He’s not mad the team is still losing; even as World Series champs, its appeal wears thin.

Paul has long called himself an atheist, but he’s ripe for recruitment by his impersonator, whose hidden agenda involves ancient orders and mysterious texts. What follows is a byzantine mystery that grows less interesting the more Ferris reveals. You start out amused by and invested in Paul’s journey but end up dissatisfied, looking for something to fill that book-shaped hole in your own life.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.