Bartholomew Neil is a ruthless self-critic. He calls himself "a fat, unemployed, friendless man," and worries "that I just don't believe enough in any one thing to make a significant contribution to the world."In short, he's in serious need of a sounding board, somebody who'll lend a nonjudgmental ear. He thinks he's found just the guy: Richard Gere.
Bartholomew's story is told in "The Good Luck of Right Now," a strenuously life-affirming tale by Matthew Quick, author of "The Silver Linings Playbook."
Each of the 17 chapters in Quick's novel takes the form of a letter from Bartholomew to Gere. They have never met. They never will. But because his late mother seems to have spent her last days mistaking him for the Hollywood star, Bartholomew has decided that he needs to share his story with Gere.
"Maybe you are meant to help me, Richard Gere, now that Mom is gone," he writes, untroubled by the realization that theirs will almost certainly be a one-way conversation.
The novel is set in Philadelphia, where Bartholomew — he's in his late 30s and, we're told, "mentally challenged" — was born and raised by a single mother with a knack for seeing the bright side. Her death, early in the book, leaves Bartholomew wondering if he can cope on his own.
But before he has the opportunity to find out, he's off on a mission with Father McNamee, a family friend and disillusioned ex-priest. It seems that Bartholomew's counselor is being abused by her boyfriend, and Father McNamee has decided that they need to confront the scoundrel. At first, this goes badly. But for Bartholomew, the episode is subtly emboldening. Maybe he can make a difference.
Meanwhile, Bartholomew is tiptoeing in the direction of his first romantic relationship. For a while now, he's been an admirer of a volunteer librarian. Fortunately, she has a brother who might just provide Bartholomew with a means of getting to know her.
"The Good Luck of Right Now" begins as a character study and morphs into a road novel, blending humorous set pieces — pack a Canadian hotel room with UFO abductees and there's bound to be fun — with poignant revelations about the novel's main characters. It's an unabashed tear-jerker.
Bartholomew's notes to Gere are, of course, a satire of a society fixated on celebrities. But the letters also serve as a kind of Trojan horse that allows Quick to consider that most elemental of questions: How do we choose what we believe in?
"I wondered," Bartholomew says during a particularly tough moment, "if faith were not a form of pretending."
Letters are nice. But some problems, Bartholomew soon realizes, you have to work out on your own.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.