At The Bottom of Everything
I started reading At the Bottom of Everything, by Ben Dolnick, during a week when I was reading very late into the evening, and when I put it on my bedside table and turned out the light, I was startled to discover that the title, illuminated by a drawing of a flashlight, glows in the dark. That was only the first of the startling things about the book.
When the publisher at Pantheon/Knopf offered me a copy of At the Bottom of Everything, along with a couple of other titles, I took a look at the summary and decided it sounded interesting, something about “two friends torn apart by a terrible secret.” By the time it arrived in my mailbox, my life seemed an endless round of summoning up the energy to give perky replies to questions about how I was doing with both kids gone. So when I opened the first page, I fell quickly into the story of a person who can introduce himself by saying
“I could only pick up and leave like that because the thing I was picking up and leaving was no longer, in any recognizable sense, a life. But I don’t say this. My conversation self, the one I send out to bars and parties and weddings, is a half-truth-spouting machine.”
All of this hit close to home; I was irritating even myself with the manic intensity of the fake smile I would plaster on whenever anyone asked how I was doing.
On the second page I fell completely under the spell of the first-person narrator, as he meets someone who used to be a part of his life and after she gets in her car and drives off, he admits “I was fake smiling and murmuring for a block and a half.”
Yep. Done that.
The “terrible secret” surprised me by staying secret for the eleven years between its occurrence and the beginning of the novel, and by remaining terrible, no matter how many characters were let in on the secret as the novel progressed. It happened because of something kids do, something that might have happened more than once in different places on different nights without becoming the kind of accident that profoundly changes the lives of at least eight people, as this one did.
The last three-quarters of the novel, after you find out the secret, consists of how the narrator brings himself to face the consequences of his actions, after eleven years of pretending and suffering panic attacks.
The biggest surprise, in the end, is that even though he keeps making the same conscious decision, a change in him comes physically: “your body knows a huge amount more than you do about how to get along in the world.” The title becomes literal; at the bottom of everything, the narrator “looked up and saw light like a steel spike falling toward us” and in the end, the person who had been there with him assures him (by e-mail) that his “quietest doubts are right.”
Being told your doubts are right is not a good surprise, but this novel suggests that it can make everything that happens less “like being handed the wrong jacket at a party” and more like going out without a jacket or a smile, willing to startle other people instead of hiding your own panic anymore.