Shared tragedy shapes the lives of boyhood friends

“At the Bottom of Everything” by Ben Dolnick (Pantheon, 239 pages, $24.95)

Best friends in childhood share plenty of secrets, but most of the time it’s the mundane variety: who has a crush on whom, who stole some trifling thing, bits of gossip and petty crimes that seem deep or dark at the time. That’s not always the stuff of interesting fiction, though, so author Ben Dolnick has given his two main characters a far deeper and darker secret: shared responsibility for a tragic accident.

The book starts off with Adam Sanecki pining over his ex-girlfriend, and starting an affair with the mother of two young boys he tutors. Twentysomething and aimless, Adam thinks often of his friend Thomas Pell. Thomas was an odd child in school, brainy and intense, sickly and awkward, but with complex depths and surprise moments of rebelliousness that weren’t readily apparent to his peers, Adam included. But Adam notices that Thomas “was set apart from the rest of us by a sense that what happened in school wasn’t nearly so serious as we thought.” The two were inseparable for a while, but after the accident slowly drifted apart, much to the dismay of Thomas’s parents, who liked Adam and liked the fact that he was a good, “normal” friend to Thomas.

Adam and Thomas lose touch, but one day Adam gets the first of many concerned-turning-frantic e-mails from Thomas’s parents. He’s not well. Something’s wrong. He’s “drowning.” He’s disappeared. Next thing, Adam is on a plane to India to try to track down Thomas, who has been associating with a guru and apparently trying to atone.

This is a sharp turn from the beginning of the story, and it pushes the boundaries of belief, because nothing in the first third of the book leads us to believe that Thomas would seek out a guru or that Adam would travel halfway around the world looking for him. That makes the story different from a typical coming-of-age/coming-to-terms-with-guilt narrative, which is good, but the story isn’t too interesting, even when it turns into man-vs.-nature narrative, which is not good.

Dolnick’s writing is sometimes languid, sometimes breathless, and the pace mostly fits the mood and plot of a given section. His similes go over the top at times, for example: “There were clouds moving over me like a slow-motion comb-over.” But they work well other places, as in: “What we were doing felt, in terms of efficiency, like going from one room to the next by eating through a wall.”

Overall, however, neither main character is particularly sympathetic – Thomas, on his quest for redemption, comes off as selfish; Adam, while realizing his own selfishness, is shallow and a bit whiny – and The Deep Revelation at the end of the book seems forced rather than inspiring. “At the Bottom of Everything” is not a horrible book, but, at the bottom of it, just disappointing.