Oscar Boatwright, the protagonist of “A Philosophy of Ruin,” is also driven by a professional creed, though his identity unravels more completely than Jessa’s when faced with similar conflicts — perhaps because of the more abstract nature of his occupation as an assistant professor of philosophy. When he learns that his mother has died on a flight home from Hawaii, his father forced to complete the journey next to her stiffening body, Oscar attempts to mitigate his grief using mental exercises “to distance himself from the idea of reality existing outside of his own head,” and to “meditate on the best arguments against the existence of free will.”
Unsurprisingly, these fail, and Oscar succumbs to thoughts like the following: “Not only was she gone, but her impression of him, that she had carried with her and refined since their first sublimely traumatic moment of his birth, was gone as well.” The first quarter of the novel is dedicated to such astute and indulgent articulations of grief and selfhood. Oscar is exactly as smart and self-pitying as he should be, sympathetically real though he embodies the stereotype of a philosophy professor. He even plays squash on the campus court with his only friend.
The Boatwrights do not talk to one another any more openly than the Mortons do, and so it is to Oscar’s great surprise when his father divulges that the reason his parents were in Hawaii was to attend a retreat led by one Paul St. Germaine, a self-help-guru-cum-hack-philosopher whose series of video sermons had supposedly cured his mother’s chronic depression. All told, the semi-cult leader has swindled his parents out of their savings and quite a bit more.
When the grieving Oscar attempts to drown his sorrows in booze, he brings home a woman he assumes is a one-night stand. When he arrives to deliver Monday’s lecture on Cartesian dualism, he recognizes her in the third row of his classroom, looking “younger than he remembered.”
Here, the narrative takes a sharp turn. Our grieving, introspective hero is persuaded by the comely Dawn to drive within spitting distance of the Mexican border to escort home a backpack of cocaine. He is thus dropped into an action movie whose disasters are riveting fun to read. “I am not supposed to be here,” the young professor yells at Dawn as the operation skids out of control. “I am a … METAPHYSICIAN!”
If Oscar is at least a three-dimensional stereotype, the other characters are not nearly as faceted. The man who intercepts Oscar’s journey to steal his stash is straight out of central casting, replete with gleaming white teeth and a black vaquero hat. Similarly, Dawn is an alluring nymphet whose tragic past I kept waiting to be revealed as a hoax. In many respects, it reads like the sort of fantasy a man like Oscar might invent for himself. Or, that a novelist might create to perfectly test his protagonist’s integrity.
In “Poetics,” Aristotle claims that a good ending ought to be “surprising, yet inevitable.” By that measure, the catharsis of “Mostly Dead Things” delivers. To my relief, Mancusi’s denouement was not an exercise in wish fulfillment. Why should a character like Oscar get a tidy ending? Though he defines himself by ideas, his identity is revealed as much more desperate and human than his ideologies. The novel satisfies, as the game of squash does the philosopher: “how it asked for grace but would settle for fury.”