Even if your religious education didn’t extend beyond Sunday school, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the biblical book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet who visits the belly of a big fish. Loosely building on that spare and enigmatic narrative, debut novelist Joshua Max Feldman has produced an affecting contemporary retelling of the tale, plausibly revealing what it might be like for a thoroughly modern man to find himself touched by the hand of God.
Jonah Daniel Jacobstein is an ambitious midlevel associate at a large New York law firm, just tapped to work on a major case patent case that likely will cement his admission to a lucrative partnership. But Jonah starts to come unglued when visions—including one of himself surrounded by naked people as well as the destruction of New York City—descend upon him. Jonah’s career and personal life both soon are in freefall, and it’s only when he meets Judith Klein Bulbrook, a young woman whose own life has been cleaved by tragedy, that he’s able to take the first, faltering steps on the road to redemption.
Feldman succeeds at capturing Jonah’s conflicted response to the notion that he may, for reasons he can’t possibly fathom, be in contact with the divine. After his first vision, Jonah brings his lawyerly intellect to bear in crafting a set of “Logical Explanations” that range from “smoked bad weed” to “schizophrenia.” Only when he has declared each of these theories sorely lacking does Jonah, who “understood divinity the way most people understood Wi-Fi,” admit of the possibility that “there was something—Biblical—going on.” Feldman foregoes any scenes of Jonah as a wild-eyed, bearded street corner preacher, opting for authenticity, not parody, as his protagonist finally asks: “Why not just give up, and do good?”
The Book of Jonah is as up-to-date as an iPhone 5S and as timeless as the question it asks: How do we live a righteous life? For all the ironic cool of his novel’s slick, modern surface, like writers of the best moral fiction, Joshua Max Feldman touches us in ways that are anything but superficial.