To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
337 pages (hardcover)
Until Bryan and I moved to Atlanta last year, I had been visiting the same dentist for twenty years. I started seeing her in high school and never stopped. I would make time for an appointment during my breaks from college and, later, from my visits home from Louisiana. When I moved back to Virginia, I drove over an hour (through the dreaded HRBT) for my biannual check-ups. Once you find a good dentist, you keep her.
The dentist to whom I’m referring is a very intense, very small woman with a big, bright, toothy smile (a prerequisite for the job, methinks). Despite the fact that I only saw her for a couple minutes, twice a year, she always greeted me by name, asked after my brother or mother, and demanded an update on school or job or life generally. Whenever I appeared in the local paper, she would send my mom clippings with nice little notes. I continued going to her as much for her bedside (chairside?) manner as for her dental skills.
After we moved to Atlanta, Bryan and I asked around and found a dental office that a few friends recommended. We both visited within a couple weeks of each other. We compared notes and found that our experiences were nearly identical: good, thorough cleaning and check-up from a competent hygienist, followed by a one-minute peek by the actual dentist. Other than a “Hi, how are you?” the only thing the dentist asked was, “How’s your flossing?” (not “Do you floss?” or “How often do you floss?” ). And this exact procedure was repeated, for both of us, six months later.
My Atlanta dental visits made me realize that I was spoiled by my old dentist. I’d known her for decades, so she at least acted like she actually cared about me. I recognize now that’s probably not the norm, which makes sense, considering the fact that we really don’t spend too much time with our dentists. If you have good oral health and visit the dentist regularly, he or she will pop in at the end of your visit to check your x-rays and make sure your hygienist didn’t miss anything (read: make sure your visit is worth the big bucks he or she is charging your insurance company). You may see your dentist for two minutes every six months. Or, perhaps you’re one of the 15% of Americans who suffer from dental phobia and only show up to the dentist’s office in the case of dire emergencies (according to this Gallup poll, 1/3 of all adults have not visited the dentist in the past year). You may have to spend a little more time in the chair when you go, but you’re only going once every six (or more) years. Either way, you and your dentist aren’t spending loads of quality time together.
And maybe that’s for the best. Because, let’s be honest, dentists are an odd bunch. They are happy to carry on one-sided conversations (a skill they have honed after years of talking to people whose mouths are stuffed with dental instruments or gloved fingers). They have unnaturally large and gleaming teeth, which they feel they must show at all times as positive advertisements of their work. They give you awkward, gloved pats on the shoulder in an attempt to establish intimacy or familiarity, which serve only to make you more aware that you are just one of the dozens of nameless patients circling through their office each day. And they spend all day, every day digging rot out of people’s mouths and pulling teeth and floss-shaming and affixing dental bridges and inspecting mouth growths. Gross.
But imagine if you did get to know your dentist better. Imagine if you were able to hear hisentire inner monologue running and running and running. You would hear his detailed thoughts on impacted molars, flossing, cavities, and the evils of lollipops. And you would also have to hear all about his views on religion and his obsession with the Boston Red Sox and his opinions of his employees and his utter inability to be in a normal relationship like a normal person.
If that sounds at all appealing to you, then To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the book for you. It is over three hundred pages of the inner dialogue of Dr. Paul C. O’Rourke, D.D.S.
To call this a character-driven novel would be a gross understatement. This book is all voice (the voice is a good one—biting and bitter though it may be). Paul O’Rourke is a great, well-developed character. He’s lonely and neurotic and weird (“He took out a handkerchief and blew his nose, then returned the handkerchief to his pocket. I have always admired a man who can blow his nose gracefully while another man looks on.”). You frequently question whether he is a reliable narrator (and conclude often that he likely is not).
But a book that is nothing but the internal ramblings of a crazy dentist gets really old and really boring, really fast. Yes, the writing is clever and laugh-out-loud funny in places, but there are also pages and pages (with no paragraph breaks) about absolutely nothing, which make skimming nearly essential.
There is a plot—one about a religion/cult (“The difference between ten believers and ten million is a categorical one . . . We call the one a cult and the other a religion. Personally, I don’t much care for that distinction. But without a certain critical mass, things do sometimes get weird.”). And it had the potential to be funny and interesting, but it is so undeveloped and mired down by tangential inner monologue that it feels as inconsequential as a minor subplot. Sad.
What you should read instead: This book has the feel of a low-rent, wannabe Jonathan Tropper book. So, hey, why not just read a Jonathan Tropper book instead? This Is Where I Leave You is a great one. It’s that rare gem that is both really funny and really touching. Read it before the movie with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman and Adam Driver is released!
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (a retelling of Snow White that was named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month for March 2014)
- Delicious!: A Novel by Ruth Reichl (the debut novel from Reichl, former New York Times restaurant critic and Gourmet’s editor in chief)