Ask anyone who has ever curled up for the evening up with some Camus and a good bottle of wine: Existentialism makes for good reading.
That is not to say that Henry Tuhoe, the protagonist of James Othmer’s Holy Water, bears any particular resemblance to, say, The Stranger’s Mersault. It is, rather, the nature of Tuhoe’s journey—a craftily interwoven mesh of culturally relevant mundanity and fairy-tale absurdity—that recalls such sobering yet inspiring romps as Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake (1997).
Like Vonnegut, Othmer draws deeply on autobiographical experience. The Putnam County author, a transformed New York creative advertising executive, describes himself on his website as “once known as the surly guy on the 5:19 to Croton Falls.” He creates Henry Tuhoe as a 32-year-old, relatively successful New York middle manager for a large corporate conglomerate, increasingly at odds with his own version of the American Dream.
Tuhoe has left his quasi-hip Upper West Side life for an exurb “McMansion,” an Audi A4, and a monthly Metro-North pass. His life is peppered with the spiritually challenging vicissitudes of the suburban existence: the dissatisfying banality of forced male bonding, the depressing chore of commuting, and the overwhelming and tedious demands of home ownership. Tuhoe and his wife are drifting increasingly farther apart, their rift accelerated not just by the spiritually unfulfilled nature of their lives, but by the confounding debate over filling that empty space through childrearing. The material contrivances of upscale family life offer no solace to Tuhoe, whose sole prized possession is his extensive iTunes collection of contemporary pop music.
Tuhoe is suddenly launched into another dimension of absurdity by the “rightsizing” efforts of his corporate employer, an entity that itself offers a sparkling example of existentialist inanity. Armed with plummeting self-esteem and a pervasive sense of impotence (brilliantly characterized by Othmer via his antihero’s introspective run-in with a vasectomy), Tuhoe allows himself to be shipped off to the imaginary “second-world” Asian kingdom of Galado. His purpose: to create a call center for a bottled spring-water company by “Americanizing” a group of impoverished, clean-water-starved natives. The country is being fast-tracked into the 21st century by its sociopathic, Western-educated Prince, who, like Tuhoe (and Othmer), is a graduate of Boston’s Northeastern University.
Othmer’s extensive insider knowledge of global branding, and the pomp, personality, and silliness that surrounds it, informs this work, just as it did his acclaimed debut novel The Futurist and his recent memoir Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet. Tuhoe is ushered through his trek into the great geopolitical beyond by an engaging cast of opportunistic new-world corporate piranhas, and by conflicted representatives of an indigenous population grappling with the choice between their old-world, sequestered spirituality and the enticing draw of new-millennium wealth.
While in Galado, Tuhue stumbles into romance, and even altruistic purpose, to offset his formerly barren work life and marriage; mingled with the struggle between ersatz-Buddhist simplicity and the inhumanity of Western globalization, Othmer offers an alluringly satisfying lullaby. Yet his sharp eye examines both the corruption of spirituality and the spirituality of corruption, and that seldom leads to nice, pat conclusions. Holy Water is an entertaining and provocative read to curl up with—and don’t forget the wine. You may need it.