The story of Job is one that just about everyone knows. Innocent man made to suffer at the hands of God and the devil to prove a point about the nature of sin, and the inherent goodness or evil in a man's heart. That it's so well known is something that Mark Ferrari's mammoth first novel, The Book of Joby, makes no bones about (ex: the prologue is titled "The Same Stupid Bet"). And yet, by owning this one fact, the Book of Joby is able to transcend its trappings and give us something fresh, and truly special.
The Book of Joby, after the stupid bet is made, opens on the pristine childhood of the novel's central character. Joby's youth is one of idyllic suburban nostalgia. Bike rides around neighborhoods, extravagant sessions, pretending to be knights and fighting the good fight against imaginary dragons and trolls, parents who stand in the windows watching as the boy trounces about the yard ahead of a troupe of neighborhood kids. Ferrari creates such a warm and nostalgic environment that one can't help but fall in love. Then the bet starts. Life turns to hell, and by the time Joby graduates high school and goes off to college, the comfort and safety of childhood is far behind.
In preparing to write this review, reading the book, and then reading what other critics had to say, I was struck with the sense that so many felt the drag of sections of the Book of Joby. These early, overlong moments here in Joby's youth, followed by long stretches of calm quiet in the off-the-map town of Taubolt occupying the third quarter of the novel, were read by many as indulgence, and a little fatty. To play contrary, I see these moments, these long idle periods as the calm before the storm that makes us idle. These sections of peace breaking up what would otherwise be a downer of a story. And Mr. Ferrari manages to escape that. The heavy weight of constant, crushing failure and defeat. He manages to take a character who, oftentimes, is teetering on the edge of suicide and instead tell a breathless and warm story.
This is of course not to say it isn't an honest story. This is where Mark Ferrari shows his true strength. By embracing the culturally relevant religion of mythology ("writing fantasy for an American audience set in our own culture's body of supernatural lore" he writes on the FAQ of his website) he tells a relevant tale not bogged down by the need for dogmatic discourse. Where a book like this published by the christian market would go out of its way to create blatantly good and blatantly bad characters, sacrificing characterization and humanity for moral tropes, Joby instead offers up real, honest characters. Characters who drink, and swear, and screw around, and make real mistakes, and have children out of wedlock without being damned for it. Mark provides good Christian characters, and bad Christian characters. Nonbelievers with more righteousness than some of the faithful, and the "faithful" with no honest faith at all.
What emerges at the end from this is one of the most honest tales of growing up, the desperation to believe in something, and above all else a damn good rousing adventure story. A lyrical story with beautifully painted imagery. A tale that is at once utterly familiar, and refreshingly new. The Book of Joby is a must read for anyone who likes modern fantasy.