Ben Dolnick's previous two books — Zoology (2007) and You Know Who You Are (2011) — have mostly dealt with young people coming of age. In his latest novel, At the Bottom of Everything, the writer's youthful coming-of-age tales start to themselves come of age. As teenagers, the waifish, ascetic Thomas Pell is the smartest kid at school, but socially awkward. Adam has just moved to Washington D.C. with his mother and new stepdad. The two boys quickly become fairly inseparable, getting up to fairly standard young person shenanigans. Soon the duo begins taking the Pells' car out for midnight drives around the block — the lesson here being unlicensed joyriding is all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
A decade or so passes. Adam and Thomas have been long estranged. Adam makes his living as a tutor, but must give that up after becoming intimately involved with the mother of one of his young clients. Around the same time, he happens into Thomas's distraught mom, who begs Adam to reach out to his former friend. Thomas's mental state, it seems, has been in steady decline since the incident. Adam is resistant to reexamining that part of his life, but feels compelled to follow when Thomas flees to India on a journey of belated contrition. It's in India that both young men will finally confront their demons, the past, and each other.
There is something of Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi in Dolnick's familiar rendering of a materially well-off westerner seeking enlightenment in the crowds and noise of India. (Apparently there is something ineffably pure and necessary amid the squalor when it comes to spiritual absolution?) From the hippie backpackers at the hostel to the bedridden Indian guru who offers Adam his brand of cryptically sage advice, the author's outsider vision of India holds no big surprises.
While At the Bottom of Everything doesn't work perfectly as a fictional travelogue, it certainly shines as an examination of the ephemeral foundations of youth and friendship. "First I stopped going over to the Pells' house," Adam remembers, "then I stopped looking for Thomas between classes, then I stopped saying hi to him in the halls completely. It was weird, but it was also, once we were started on it, impossible to reverse; you can't go from ignoring someone to saying hi without some sort of conversation in between, some fight or explanation, but there was nothing I was willing to fight about, nothing I was willing to explain." Dolnick perfectly captures the unstoppable inertia of kids growing apart, and even as the plot goes a bit off the rails, the author's heartfelt depiction of two former friends struggling against that momentum never does.
Towards the end of their time in India, Thomas runs into some serious trouble, and it's up to Adam to save him, but he's close to the end of his how-far-would-you-go-for-a-former-friend rope. "But my secret had taken hold of me," Adam explains. "I was going to leave him there. I wouldn't die for him. No one would want me to. Even he wouldn't want me to, if he were thinking clearly. Have you ever walked out of a room where a baby's crying? I had that kind of charge, the guilt and the anticipated relief." They both experience a dark night of the soul, and not just in the guilt-wracked, figurative sense — they come to a place where it's literally pitch black, and in Dolnick's telling, the sense of lightless, claustrophobic awfulness is palpable.
As the physical manifestation of their shared misery, it's a little too on the nose, but, again, Dolnick's strong sense of his characters and their shared psychological trauma makes for a fairly gripping denouement. These guys are recognizable, even if their unusual situation is not. The book contains much of Dolnick's usual earnestness, but is, all told, something a bit grimmer. Adam and Thomas could be any of us. The book is called At the Bottom of Everything, but it might as well be There But for the Grace of God, Go I.