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A stunning novel of friendship, guilt, and madness: two friends, torn apart by a terrible secret, and the dark adventure that neither of them could have ever conceived.
It’s been ten years since the “incident,” and Adam has long since decided he’s better off without his former best friend, Thomas. Adam is working as a tutor, sleeping with the mother of a student, spending lonely nights looking up his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, and ...
A stunning novel of friendship, guilt, and madness: two friends, torn apart by a terrible secret, and the dark adventure that neither of them could have ever conceived.
It’s been ten years since the “incident,” and Adam has long since decided he’s better off without his former best friend, Thomas. Adam is working as a tutor, sleeping with the mother of a student, spending lonely nights looking up his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, and pretending that he has some more meaningful plan for an adult life. But when he receives an email from Thomas’s mother begging for his help, he finds himself drawn back into his old friend’s world, and into the past he’s tried so desperately to forget. As Adam embarks upon a magnificently strange and unlikely journey, Ben Dolnick unspools a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.
“Ben Dolnick’s first two novels . . . were intelligent, amiable books, about the coming-of-age of middle-class male protagonists. They were warmhearted and strikingly perceptive about their heroes’ feelings . . . . Dolnick has retained his strengths—his sensitive gauge for emotional states and his empathy—but his writing is more taut, more piquant, not only observant but wry in its depiction of human fallibility. The result is a lively, often funny book about being young and smart and confused, fumbling through life in a middle-class American sort of way . . . . Dolnick nails the casual brutality with which teenagers drop people they were once close to . . . . Dolnick narrates with a deft comic touch . . . . There is a lifelike complexity to the way it all plays out . . . . In this slim, surprisingly haunting book, Dolnick reminds us that part of being a healthy and functional human is a willingness to act a little bit selfish, a little cruel in our ability to walk away from the pain of others.”
—Adelle Waldman, New York Times Book Review
“Gripping . . . . At the Bottom of Everything shines as an examination of the ephemeral foundations of youth and friendship . . . . Dolnick perfectly captures the unstoppable inertia of kids growing apart."
—Drew Toal, NPR
“Terrific, seemingly effortless . . . . Dolnick's prose has abundant charm, humor, and intelligence, a knack for vivid details and stunning metaphors, and so many richly imagined characters that it calls to mind an updated Fitzgerald.”
—James Hannaham, Village Voice
“The characters in Ben Dolnick’s new novel, At the Bottom of Everything . . . have a trauma in their shared past—not that friendships need a reason to disintegrate—but that’s almost besides the point. The best parts of this novel involve watching the effect of this distance on its two eccentric and well-drawn characters. They’re a bit reminiscent of Martin Amis types in that they are both intelligent and flawed—the sort of combination that makes you want to hop on their backs and see where the story takes them.”
—Dan Duray, The Observer
“[E]xpertly magnifies the minutiae of youth, loneliness, and a friendship gone wrong . . . Dolnick’s insights into life’s bleaker spells are wise and entertaining, making for an invigorating and transcendent reminder of how haunting old friendships can be.”
—Jonathan Fullmer, Booklist
“An engrossing, often wrenching novel about the limits of love and friendship, not to mention self-knowledge. Dolnick writes with wisdom, humor, and real grace.”
—Sam Lipsyte, author of Home Land and The Fun Parts
“Dolnick writes with the assurance and wisdom of an author twice his age. At the Bottom of Everything turns a story about a childhood friendship into a moving exploration of the deepest questions life offers. This book does something more important than depict the ‘way we live now.’ It asks whether the way we live now is really ‘living’ at all.”
—Victor LaValle, author of The Devil in Silver
“A remarkable story about the enduring nature of childhood friendship and the burdens that such a friendship can impose on a person regardless of age or will. It’s a clear-eyed, unwavering look into the nature of guilt and the ways in which a split-second decision can change the lives of people forever. I found myself both breathlessly racing to the end of the book and also terrified to turn the final pages. It is one of those stories that will remain in my mind and heart for a long, long time.”
—Matthew Dicks, author of Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
"An unlikely friendship develops between the uptight, brilliant Thomas and the easygoing Adam . . . [Dolnick] conjures the memory of familiar movies and books like Lucas and A Separate Peace."
—Cameron Martin, The Daily Beast
"A bighearted story about friendship and forgiveness, At the Bottom of Everything is an engaging novel brimming over with humor and sympathetic characters."
—Michael David Lukas, San Francisco Chronicle
Praise for Ben Dolnick
“Dolnick is a writer of incredible sensitivity.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“Dolnick writes with a maturity that belies his years . . . distinguished by a rare combination of narrative patience and instinctive kindness.”
—George Saunders, author of Tenth of December
(1) You’re such a good friend!
(2) How could you just pick up and leave like that?
I was nothing like a good friend, and 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. Here I’ll try to do better.
I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard. I’d let emails from his mom pile up so long that it would have been worse, I convinced myself, to respond that late than just not to respond at all. I’d become an expert at changing the subject whenever his name came up (did you ever think he’d drop out of school? did you hear he was in the hospital? what’s he doing in India?). I’d even, one especially unproud morning, turned and speed-walked out of Safeway because I’d seen Thomas’s dad, or someone who looked like Thomas’s dad, rooting around in the bin of red peppers.
But of course shame was going to catch up with me sooner or later. Shame or Thomas’s mom, who startled me outside the CVS on Wisconsin Avenue one day when I’d just bought a box of condoms.
“You’re just hell to get ahold of,” she said, smiling. I held my bag behind my back. “Do you have time to come back to our place? Richard would love to see you.”
“Oh,” I said, “I’m actually . . .” and pointed off vaguely behind me.
She nodded. “You know Thomas talks about you as much as anybody,” she said. My heart was racing, reasonably enough. “I know he’d love to hear from you.”
“I’ll write to him,” I said, and I did my best to sound as if the thing that had been stopping me until then was just that it had never occurred to me.
We hugged (this took some ginger CVS-bag maneuvering on my part) and promised to see each other soon. “Send your mother our love,” she called out as she got into her car (a new Volvo, this one blue). I was fake smiling and murmuring for a block and a half.
Thomas had been the smartest kid at Dupont Prep, the last person anyone would have pegged for disaster. And I, semireasonable soccer player and wearer of striped polo shirts, had been his best friend. We were, for a few years, one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.
Anyway, childhood friends, given a decade or two, turn into strangers. Their parents don’t. I could more or less convince myself that the Thomas I’d been doing my best not to think about was someone else entirely, but his mom (who looked so pale and defeated, who was probably even then asking Richard to guess who she’d run into) was unmistakably the same woman who’d driven me home when I’d forgotten my retainer, who’d bought me calamine lotion when I came back from field day with poison ivy. But I didn’t turn around.
I won’t try to defend myself except to say that my own life still seemed to me complicated and demanding enough that I didn’t think I had room in it for Thomas. And that I turned out to be as wrong, in imagining the course of those next few months, as I’d ever been about anything.
But just then I only knew that I’d barely escaped a visit to the Pells, and that Anna was waiting for me. I hurried back to my car like a fish released, just in time, from a barbed and rusting hook.
When all this happened I was twenty-six, which didn’t seem to me at all young. I’d recently realized that I couldn’t say anymore, when people (great-uncles, overzealous librarians) asked, that I’d “just finished college,” and that no one wanted to know now what I wanted to be; they wanted to know what I did.
Which was: tutoring. “Ohhh! Tutoring! That must be so . . . [hard/interesting/wonderful].” It was hard, in the sense that all of life, particularly the bits you have to spend with sullen eleven-year-olds, is hard. And it was interesting, in that it meant I got to see a great number of strangers’ kitchens and bedrooms and medicine cabinets packed with antidepressants and Vaseline. It was only wonderful at the ends of sessions, when I would nod farewell to a parent or babysitter and spill back out into the world, free and light and finished.
For the two years after college I’d had a more conventional job, at a political magazine on Capitol Hill. This magazine was tiny and well respected, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, overseen by its eighty-something FDR-revering founder, staffed by young and exhausted and brilliant people who moved on after a year or two and haunted you forever after with their bylines. Every issue was an emergency, and in the middle of my first real assignment, something about the transformation of the domestic auto industry, I had a panic attack (my first in years), complete with a terrifying/ mortifying ambulance ride, after which my boss made clear, if it wasn’t clear already, that I was probably in the wrong line of work.
So that spring I became a tutor, which seemed, along with being a nanny, to be one of the loopholes people my age had discovered in the professional world, a way of making a reasonable amount of money without working particularly hard or doing anything more soul-crushing than absolutely necessary. My mom and stepdad were appeased by the thought that I was just biding my time before going off to law school and becoming a public defender (which I still thought I might do), and I was appeased by the thought that I got to spend all my nights with Claire.
I’d met Claire when we were undergrads, but we’d only known each other well enough to smile when we shared an elevator or when we passed each other in the library. She was one of the girls, of whom there were dozens at Penn, who I’d see and think, In another life, maybe, yes. Red hair, pale skin, freckles that weren’t so much countable as a kind of wallpaper pattern. She was in things like improv troupes and student movies, on the fringes of the theater crowd but not quite so pretentious or pleased with herself as most of them seemed to be. She always had a boyfriend, usually another actor.
I first saw her in D.C. at a party in Adams Morgan just before I left the magazine. It’s always unsettling, seeing people you’ve almost but not quite forgotten about—not because they’ve changed (she’d hardly changed at all) but because they’ve gone on existing, finding jobs and making friends and moving apartments, all without the help of your thinking about them. So there she was, Claire Brier, standing in front of the little table that someone had set up with bottles of vodka and juice and red plastic cups. We hugged when we saw each other, despite never having hugged when we’d seen each other regularly. We carried our drinks over to the window, because even though it was April the heat was on in the apartment, and while we talked she fanned herself with her hand. She turned out to be living alone on U Street, working at a think tank, still doing improv on the weekends. She finished her vodka and poured herself another. She looked, I thought and think, like a girl who should live on a rocky beach in New England, drink enormous mugs of dark tea, dig up clams.
“You always seemed like such a dude,” she said after we’d been talking for a while. “I thought you were a Flip Cup kind of person.”
“I thought you were a vocal exercises kind of person.”
“Mi mi mi mi mi.” We hugged again before she left, more confidently than before, and she told me that I should come to her next improv show.
I did, and that did it. There were, in those first weeks, afternoon coffees that ended with us on a bench near her office, her legs in my lap; there were mornings of having to unmake the bed to find our underwear; there was kissing good-bye on the Metro platform. By that first fall together we were spending almost every night at her apartment, reading next to each other in bed, having conversations between the shower and the bedroom.
“So I guess this is what it feels like,” she said once, when we were leaning forehead to forehead, the only two people on the long escalator in Union Station.
I wish I could take that year, like the salvageable bits of a meal dropped on the floor, and separate it from what happened next, which now seems minor but which at the time seemed baffling and tragic and unbelievable. What happened is: she broke up with me. “You had a bad breakup,” my mom said when I was over for dinner one night, in a summing-up-and- moving-on voice. (Are there good breakups? Are there break- ups that leave both people feeling that they’ve just emerged not from a washing machine but from a bittersweet and not- too-long movie?)
There was the philosophical version, which would settle over me sometimes as I was falling asleep—I never entirely opened up to her and this little flaw, like a crack in a glass table, had no choice but to spread—and then there was the battle-flashback version that I spent most of my days trapped in. The fight outside her building, when someone leaned out from a high window and called out, “Get a divorce!” The bleary Sunday morning in the kitchen when she said, “I don’t know why we’re doing this anymore.” The night on the couch when we both cried while Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives played in the background.
In the middle of my tutoring sessions now, while the fifth grader I was supposed to be paying attention to burrowed through a sheet of word problems, I’d look up into the black living-room windows and think: Cold and alone. I don’t know where this phrase came from, or what cold had to do with anything, but the words were like a lyric that had eaten into my brainstem: cold and alone, waiting for the light to change; cold and alone, eating Chex for dinner; cold and alone, listening to my roommate and his girlfriend have sex at half past two in the morning.
I’d gotten used to treating my apartment, in my Claire days, as not much more than a place to keep my clothes and pick up the mail, but suddenly I was spending my nights drinking beer with Joel on the futon, watching Craig Ferguson. “Are you gonna be OK?” he sometimes said.
“I don’t know.”
“Ah, come on, you are.”
I knew Joel from college too—he’d been the guy in my freshman dorm who knew where in Philadelphia to buy good weed—but now we seemed to have not much more reason to live together than any two people standing in line together at the bank.
One night, while I was lying with my cheek pressed against the rug between the coffee table and the TV, thinking for whole minutes about things like whether I should roll over to reach for my water glass, I called Claire twenty-three times. At first I had urgent things to say, things I was sure would change her mind, but after half a dozen calls I couldn’t remember what they were, and if she’d picked up I would just have had to groan, like a cow whose legs have given out. Another night I stood outside her building saying her name, first in an embarrassed bark, then louder and louder until I was bawling on U Street, promising myself that I would never again feel anything except sympathy for the people I saw ranting in front of the White House. I was going to tell her about my childhood, tell her about Thomas, about Mira Batra; I was going to split my life open and spill it onto her front steps like a full-to-bursting bag of coffee grounds and orange rinds.
This happened to be the fall of 2008, a few weeks before the election, when everyone in D.C., and maybe everyone in the country, had been gripped by a brain fever that was making them email each other poll results and interview clips and enormous heartfelt diatribes about how normally they don’t get involved in politics but now, with the stakes so high . . . For me all that was like the Traffic and Weather Together updates on AM radio. The only headlines I cared about, and I cared about them so much that I would run from the apartment door to my computer without taking my coat off, were Claire’s Facebook updates, which she hadn’t yet blocked me from seeing.
So fun running into you guys last night! We should grab a drink!
Hahaha tell B I miss her please, OK?
Anybody else starting to crave chili? Mmmm.
Each of these, next to a stamp-sized picture of Claire smiling in the white snow hat she’d once sat holding on my bed, made me feel like one of the stockbrokers in the pictures on all the newsstands. DOW DROPS 777 POINTS, WORST SINCE DEPRESSION.
Who is B? Where was Claire when she ran into people last night?
Doesn’t that “Mmmm” sound like someone who’s got a new boyfriend?
These questions gripped me for some of the least happy hours I’d spent since high school, slouching in the filth of my bedroom, clicking and clicking, unable to summon the energy even to turn on the lights. The way I remember it, I spent those months half sick, unshaven, shuffling along wind- tunnel streets with my hands buried in pocket-nests of disintegrating Kleenex. Suffering impairs judgment; there should be flashing lights, a surgeon general’s warning, celebrity-sponsored ad campaigns.
1. The story opens with a focus on Adam and his two most recent relationships. How are his relationships with Claire and Anna similar/different?
2. Looking back, how has “the incident” impacted the rest of Adam’s life? His relationships? His career?
3. What made Thomas and Adam become friends in the first place? How were they the same? How were they different?
4. Adam spends most of his time at the Pells’ house while in middle school. How much of his friendship with Thomas is based on his interest in Thomas, and how much is his desire to be a part of the Pell family?
5. How are the Pells different from Adam’s mother and stepfather? Do you think the Pells made/shaped Thomas, or did they simply embrace and support his “differentness”?
6. Adam and Thomas react in opposite ways to stressful situations: conflicts in school, the police approaching on the train tracks, and, of course, the accident. Discuss the different ways Thomas and Adam react.
7. How do you think you would react in a situation like “the incident”? What if you were in ninth grade?
8. Thomas and Adam’s friendship deteriorates after the accident. Do you think they would have stayed friends if it had never happened?
9. Did you have friends in school that you no longer see or speak to? Is there anyone who you were close to in your life that you’ve lost touch with that you would drop everything for? Why did you lose touch?
10. Who was Adam helping when he went to India? Thomas? The Pells? Himself?
11. When Adam initially tells of his meeting Thomas, he says, “what set Thomas apart, I think, was that he somehow managed, in his hundred-pound body and New Balance sneakers, to give the impression of being wise” (page 12). Do you think Thomas’s search for wisdom and transcendence are based solely in his guilt? Was he on the path to something higher before the accident, and would he still have taken that direction had the accident never happened?
12. The teachings of Sri Prabhakara promise Thomas transcendence based on a certain removal of personal conscience/consciousness. Would Thomas have reached out to the Batras without this impetus?
13. Should Thomas have gone to the Batras’ house in India? Was his confession for himself or for the Batras? Who do you think it helped? Does Adam, who didn’t admit anything, get anything out of the encounter?
14. Why does Adam go after Thomas in the first place? Why does he continue to try to find him after meeting the Batras?
15. Adam’s ordeal in getting to the cave shows him to be tenacious and determined, the first we have seen this behavior from him. Discuss where this focus might have come from.
16. What happens in the shaft in the cave? Hallucinations from dehydration? Temporary insanity? Transcendence of consciousness?
17. After their rescue from the cave, Adam returns to a “normal” life. Do you think things have fundamentally changed for him? How is he different, and how different is he?
18. Adam calls Charles Lowe (the other driver) to confess what the boys had done. Do you think this will help either one of them in the long run?
19. Thomas does not return to a “normal” life. Is there a “normal” for someone like Thomas? Is he crazy? What does “recovery” mean to someone like him?
20. The fourth part of the novel (post-India) is written completely in emails from Adam to Thomas. Why? Does the wordless communication they developed in the cave still exist? Is that what Adam tells himself to feel better? How does Thomas’s lack of communication affect those around him?
21. Based on his last email, what do you think will happen to Thomas?
22. To what does the title refer, besides the physical aspect of the shaft in the cave?
Posted January 16, 2014
This book is amazing. It touches upon everything a twentysomething year old may experience including, life, love, and death. It's also a page turner. I highly recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.