Thank goodness, then, for “The Book of Jonas,” the newly released debut novel by Pittsburgh native Stephen Dau, which fully appreciates the ineffable qualities of the book form. It comes too late to turn the tide of popular opinion away from the e-reading future, but thoroughly vindicates the devotion of book lovers for the doomed objects of their affection.
The narrative itself tells of orphaned Younis, the young survivor of a botched U.S. military operation that destroyed his village in an unnamed, occupied Middle-Eastern nation resembling Iraq. Relocated to suburban Pittsburgh by a relief organization, and known by the Anglicized name of Jonas, he struggles to assimilate to life as a teenager in the “buckle of the Rust Belt.” To avoid harassment and escape the stress of his own memories, he seeks refuge in his school’s library, poring over religious histories, until a vicious attack on a bullying classmate results in court-ordered counseling. Despite the best efforts of his therapist, host family and girlfriend, Jonas “strives to keep himself unknowable” by refusing to divulge the details of his early life. But when a grieving mother in nearby Johnstown agitates for answers about the disappearance of her soldier son, whose fate is known only to Jonas, he is forced to confront both his emotional trauma and personal accountability.
The author, who spent 10 years in postwar reconstruction and international development before turning to writing, keeps his novel apolitical, but not amoral. Indeed, it adopts a decidedly moralistic tone, based as it is on the story of Jonah, the famous fugitive featured in the sacred texts of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. In each version, Jonah flees from the presence of the Lord when commanded to travel to Nineveh to warn its citizens to forswear their evil ways. His efforts to escape by sailing in the opposite direction are thwarted by terrible storms until he is cast into the water and swallowed by a great sea creature, whereupon he repents, does the Lord’s bidding, and forestalls the destruction of the Ninevites.
Dau’s refugee flees not so much from the actual presence of the Lord as from self-knowledge; the bitter lessons of experience and the maddening “internal inconsistencies” of his own soul. He knows too well that things are not as they seem; that good and evil exist side by side; that Americans live in a fool’s paradise as wayward, deluded and self-absorbed as ancient Nineveh itself (the ruins of which happen to lie within the borders of modern Iraq).
Like his biblical namesake, Jonas is tossed on the waves of the world, and attempts to flee from fate by retreating into himself, into books, into denial, and eventually, into alcohol abuse. When his born-again sponsor asks, “Did you ever think that there is a larger plan at work… that maybe you were brought here for a reason?” he dismisses her as a fool, but the appearance of Rose, the mother of the soldier he calls “his savior,” suggests otherwise. Her proximity is more providence than coincidence, and precipitates a bout of binge drinking that brings the drama to a head. Jonas the hard-partying Pitt student isn’t swallowed by a fish, but he drinks like one, and his drunken excesses land him briefly in prison. There he experiences his own epiphany while “sitting on a steel bench in a jail cell, somewhere in western Pennsylvania.”
Thereafter, Jonas finds the courage to reopen the book that has been his companion and his conscience since the raid that changed his life. It is the journal kept by Rose’s son, Christopher, during his tour overseas. In it, the soldier detailed the circumstances, both military and psychological, of the ill-fated attack that destroyed Jonas’s home and family. Christopher, who joined the army to “do good and help people,” was, like Jonas, tortured by his own shortcomings and ethical compromises. He labored obsessively over the text in his last days, pausing only to sharpen his pencil and his knife — and attend to the injured Jonas, with whom he shared the sanctuary of a hidden cave and the secret of his fate.
Stephen Dau’s maiden effort has a number of admirable features, including spare prose, a wealth of veiled theological and philosophical references, and an effectively accessible central metaphor of unlikely comrades. It enhances the remarkably meager body of 21st-century wartime literature and identifies Pittsburgh as a site of divine intervention. But it is the book within the “Book of Jonas” that is the real star of the story. Presented by Rose as a gift to her son, it is passed from Christopher to Jonas and back again to Rose, freeing her from the anguish of her uncertainty. More than a mere text or object, it is the embodiment of truth and a symbol of human frailty; a record of war, a labor of love, and a tangible connection to lost ideals. It is a confessional for Chris, a relief for Rose, and the means of redemption for poor, tormented Jonas. And you can be quite sure that none of them would ever consider “upcycling” it into a mobile or window box.