Self-improvement, America’s secular religion, has been a profitable segment of the publishing industry for more than a century, from James Allen’s “As a Man Thinketh” (1902), which states that “a man is literally what he thinks” and Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936), to Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952), all the way to Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” (2006).
But what happens if you’re a self-help guru and you find that your philosophies, instead of uplifting your life, cannot even protect it from catastrophe? This shattering revelation is at the heart of Nicholas Montemarano’s novel “The Book of Why,” just out in paperback.
Growing up in Queens, Eric Newborn had developed a set of near-magical life tenets, propelled by a father who seemed to possess some actual enchantment. A garbage man who loved his job, Glen Newborn would arrive home with treasures found on his route, broken items he seemed able to repair just by holding them and imagining them new again. Glen Newborn taught his son that the mind is more powerful than most people know—if you can visualize something, you can make it happen.
Montemarano crafts these memories with deliberate haziness. Perhaps they’re all just a young son’s susceptible vision. Or, perhaps events can unfold in ways most of us cannot comprehend. “The Book of Why” is tinged with enough magical realism to set a beguiling tone, and to enlarge the story well beyond an easy mockery of self-help.
Eric believes he possesses the same power as his father. In fact, he believes all people possess this power—it’s simply a matter of knowing how to use it. His first book, “Everyday Miracles,” a law of attraction type manual, establishes his reputation. At one “life conference” after another, Eric sincerely believes what he tells his growing audiences: “Happiness is an inside job,” “Don’t allow your past to define your future” and, ultimately, “We really do get what we’re thinking about.”
These books and inspirational speeches garner so much wealth for Eric that, though he is barely middle age, he never has to work again.
But then, Eric’s wife is felled by an illness that is impervious to encouraging thoughts or waves of positive energy. Eric retreats to their home on Martha’s Vineyard, with only their dog Ralph as company. He would have remained isolated indefinitely, if not for an avid fan, Samantha, who’s tracked him down to thank him in person for transforming her life. Samantha possesses a nature both loopy and wise. She manages to convince Eric they need to embark on a long, off-island road trip.
Written in the first person, “The Book of Why” progresses with the intimacy of a long letter written just to you. Eric considers and reconsiders the motives that fuel his core beliefs, and reflects on the times, both joyful and wounding, along the arc of his marriage.
Eric moves through these emotional changes at a believable pace. Characters he encounters in Pennsylvania or New York have individualized perspectives on reality, and Montemarano writes each with fine detail. This even applies to Eric’s dog Ralph, who not only graces the cover of the paperback edition, but provides another form of trustworthy intelligence: a reminder to be truly aware of everything around you.
Along the way, there’s some lovely writing, like this description of an old cemetery:
“The overturned gravestone…forced prostrate by the wind, facedown as if to imprint the names of the dead into the earth.”
And this, which neatly captures Eric’s newest, darkest fear:
“Perhaps there are signs everywhere, but in the end they add up to nothing – a scavenger hunt with no prize.”
With a gentle benevolence, Montemarano reveals the depth of yearning that exists just below any bumper-sticker philosophy. In doing so, he’s created an affecting tale of a man mightily striving to excavate some meaning from profound heartache.