When novelists plan on a modern-day reworking of a biblical episode, they frequently plunder the parables or cherry-pick from Genesis and Revelation. The book of choice in terms of literary quality, emotional depth and parallel potential tends to be the book of Job. It is interesting, then, that for his debut novel, Joshua Max Feldman should get his divine inspiration from a different source. "The Book of Jonah" reincarnates the legendary defiant prophet as a 21st-century hotshot lawyer — and with deeply impressive results.
For the first half of the book, Feldman's Jonah is on the up. Young, handsome, successful, with two beautiful girlfriends, he is one deal away from becoming partner in a Manhattan law firm and on the verge of signing the lease to a dream apartment. But during a wild, celebratory party he has a mind-shattering vision that undoes everything. Drowning in scotch, plagued by doubt and buckling with the pressure to be true to himself and do good, he responds to his epiphany and exercises newfound integrity — with disastrous consequences. His girlfriend, when told he has another, torpedoes the relationship. His bosses, on learning he has developed a conscience, fire him.
Interspersed with this account of Jonah's meteoric rise and calamitous fall are sections on Judith, another high achiever who, after losing her parents in the 9/11 terror attacks, undergoes a meltdown of her own. Feldman hauls Jonah out of New York and Judith from Yale; both wash up in Amsterdam and meet fleetingly, only to be reunited for a final make-or-break showdown in Las Vegas, by which time, weary with loss, each weighs up whether they can find a future in the other.
Though staying with the perspectives of only two characters, Feldman's novel still manages to be considerable in scope. He never bites off more than he can chew, ably and convincingly conjuring up ruthless legal eagles, born-again preachers, Ivy League academics and stoned party people, while skillfully capturing the exuberance and frustration of fast living in the Big Apple.
Where Feldman falters is with his reluctance to telescope events. He exhaustively catalogs every movement and gesture: "He threw out the croissant bag and empty cup in a wastebasket on the corner (every day the same wastebasket)." When we hear that Jonah "handed Sylvia a black uni-ball Vision pen (Micro)" we feel the sharp difference between lines embroidered with rich detail and those clogged with minutiae.
But Feldman's storytelling momentum flattens our quibbles. There is simply too much here to enjoy, whether the rotating wit, drama and sheer absurdity of the tale or the crackling dialogue, particularly from the many bully boys wielding power. There is also fun to be had in scanning the biblical chapter titles and discovering how Feldman cannily updates them: "The Presence of the Lord" for Jonah's one-to-one with his boss; "The Belly of the Whale" for his search for redemption in Amsterdam.
"The Book of Jonah" is a debut that heralds great promise. With shrewd allusion, finely wrought characters and a pulsing, page-turning narrative, Feldman works new and inventive wonders from an ancient template.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.