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Ordinarily, the mere mention of philosophy -- Jostein Gaarder's SOPHIE'S WORLD is a notable exception -- is enough to intimidate even the most adventurous reader of fiction. But, though Reuss posits serious questions (What is the nature of identity? What defines who we are, what we think, how we act? Is the self merely a set of precepts and conclusions to be put on or taken off like clothing, or is it established at a deeper, immutable level of consciousness?), he succeeds because he asks them in the guise of one of the more oddly compelling, unrepentantly prickly protagonists in recent fiction.
Reuss's hero is a solitary philosophy junkie who calls himself Quintus Horatius Flaccus (after the Augustan poet) -- Horace, for short. Horace, like John Kennedy Toole's memorable misanthrope, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a man at odds with his time, a man who longs for total detachment but finds himself tugged again and again into worldly affairs by "circumstances, conventions, and a weakness for wanting to be good...."
While fleeing the human entanglements of his mysterious past, Horace glimpses an exit for the small midwestern town of Oblivion and is intrigued by the possibilities implicit in such a name. He soon installs himself in a ramshackle house on a dead-end street whose only concession to the modern age is a telephone. There, through impromptu sessions of randomly reaching out and touching someone, Horace is able to pursue his philosophical ideal of autarkeia -- the serenity of not caring -- while keeping human interaction at a cool remove. "Horace here. I'm calling to ask you what you think love is." For Horace, the bemused responses are no less profound than the pronouncements of the Delphic Oracle, and far easier to interpret.
A sworn enemy of the internal combustion engine and the society it has engendered, Horace daily ranges on foot throughout the town and its surrounding woodlands. One such foray takes him past an ancient Indian burial mound, where he hears a quick succession of gunshots, then witnesses a naked woman stumbling out of the cornfield, bound, gagged, and bleeding. In a moment of doctrinal weakness, Horace comes to her rescue, flagging down a passing car and taking his Jane Doe to the hospital. But he pays a heavy price for abandoning his prime directive: The traumatized woman claims to suffer from total amnesia, and the local police suspect Horace of raping and beating her.
The police investigation turns up little more than the obvious. Horace is an eccentric, a "rich, educated, middle-aged dude" who has only recently changed his name from William Blake. (Before that, he had impersonated yet another English mystic, Chidiock Tichborne.) But without understanding the full import of their discovery, the police have unearthed Horace's greatest secret.
[My] identity is bound to the name I have taken. Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Call it an act of forced continuity that has bound me to the name while leaving the poet to roam freely in the surviving body of his work. I have found justification for my wanton act in countless passages from SELECTED PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS. It doesn't matter to me which views are current and which outmoded. The thought is the significant proposition, right? So I'll take whatever I can get from philosophers and from poets alike. I am QHF for the present. I might just as well be Diogenes, Marcus Aurelius or Jesus Christ. But, thankfully, I lack most of the discipline and all of the ambition.
Increasingly obsessed with the identity of his Jane Doe and the history of the Indian mound, Horace is granted access to the local library's private archives by the head librarian, Mr. Mohr. Terminally ill with cancer, Mohr finds Horace's cool, almost brutal detachment a welcome change from the unctuous concern and outright avoidance he has come to expect from the library regulars. But Horace's compromised philosophical discipline is further weakened by his growing friendship with Mohr, and gradually he awakens to the necessity of changing his name once again. At Mohr's suggestion, he chooses Lucian of Samosata -- "a satirist -- with a Cynic bent -- who lived to expose shams and phonies" and who, like Horace, "thoroughly despised his own epoch." But though Horace/Lucian makes a valiant effort to fix his new identity, it comes too late: Someone, perhaps the real rapist, is shadowing Horace, vandalizing his house and chipping away at the last of his hard-won autarkeia. To complicate matters, when Horace does eventually meet his Jane Doe, she is hardly the victim he had imagined. Instead she turns out to be a small-time drug dealer whose violently unpredictable boyfriend is only too willing to indulge her appetite for self-destruction.
Early in the novel Horace laments the "cheerful optimism" of those who believe there is help for every human predicament, saying, "There is no arithmetic of human emotions -- problem + help = solution." But through the authorial application of a unique emotional calculus, Reuss is able to factor the disparate elements of Mohr's impending death, revelations concerning events at the Indian burial mound, and the drama of Horace's ongoing identity crisis to arrive at a wholly satisfying resolution. To Reuss's credit, Horace Afoot does leave some questions unanswered, perhaps in acknowledgment of the quintessentially unknowable. And that, perhaps, is the ultimate consolation of philosophy.