In the biblical Book of Jonah, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and decry its citizens’ impiety. But Jonah, instead of heeding God—and thinking he can escape—goes running in the opposite direction. He attempts to flee on a ship to Tarshish, but, cast overboard and memorably swallowed by an immense fish, Jonah is humbled in his recognition of God’s power and the potential of his wrath. Once again on dry land, Jonah proceeds to Nineveh to fulfill his orders.
In his eponymous debut book, The Book of Jonah, Joshua Max Feldman uses the biblical story as a jumping-off point to explore faith in a contemporary setting. Feldman’s Jonah is a young, ambitious, New York City lawyer. He’s just been put on a prestigious pharmaceutical company’s account at his firm, Cunningham Wolf, just one case away from making partner, and he’s decided to move in with his longtime girlfriend, Sylvia, breaking off relations with Zoey, a girl he’s been seeing on the side. Jonah is tracking—his goals, albeit materialistic, in sight—when he is overcome by a vision in a bathroom at a party. Feldman writes that Jonah “immediately understood something very strange and probably unfortunate was happening to him,” and Jonah has a surreal vision of the impermanence of the world. While he tries to rationalize, to ignore what is happening, to carry on with his life as is, inevitably it isn’t so easy. Soon Jonah’s life is turned upside down.
Feldman counterbalances Jonah’s story with Judith’s, a young Jewish woman whose faith lies less in her religion than it does in diligence and in academic achievement. She has the practical belief that if she works hard, she’ll get into a good college; if she does well in college, everything else will work out. This is a different form of materialism from Jonah’s, but it is arguably no less empty, and Judith’s form of faith breaks down when she is confronted with the death of her parents, who are aboard one of the two planes that fly into the World Trade Center. She is also tested, but, unlike Jonah, there is no divine intervention in her life: no vision, no evidence.
“I didn’t want to do a beat-for-beat recreation of the book—I used it more as a thematic or psychological frame for what was happening with the characters in the novel,” Feldman says. In the biblical tale of Jonah, there are various dualities—the presence of the miraculous and the absence of God; cast out of society and swallowed up by nature; punishment and forgiveness. Perhaps the most important, however, is the desire to flee and the need to confront, which Feldman builds upon to understand his characters’ motivations. “That’s what the start of the book was—to untangle what it means to have faith, and, in particular, what it means to be confronted with things that fall far beyond what we ever expected: to be faced with the inexplicable,” he says.
Jonah and Judith are part of the same small rich white world, only one or two degrees of separation apart. But while Jonah sees a photo of Judith at a party right before his first vision, it isn’t until Jonah loses his job and his girlfriend and moves to Amsterdam that they happen to meet coincidentally in the alcove outside of a hotel, both huddled there to avoid the rain. Their meeting helps Jonah and Judith to both confront their own ideas of faith and the problems that they have been running from. “Certainly I want people to think about the role of the inexplicable in daily lives,” Feldman says. “I think many people have a rational, logic-based mindset about the world, and I think that’s great. But I also think it can in some ways be limiting. We sense these limits when confronted by tragedy, as in Judith’s case, or, in Jonah’s case, just things he can’t explain.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.