by Owen Egerton
Published 2017 by Soft Skull Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619029408
By Noah Sanders
Even the most non-religious amongst us has somewhere along the line stumbled across the story of Job. A devout family man from the Old Testament, Job’s faith is, to put it gently, tested by the spiteful, sometimes petty hand of lightning-tossing God. His family is stripped from him, his health worn down to near-deathly capacity, his entire being—both physical and mental—crushed beneath the hand of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity just so God can see how far he can fall before he loses his faith. In Owen Egerton’s new book, Hollow, he revamps the story of Job into modern times to ask questions not only about the extent of our faith, but what it is we choose to believe in. This is a dark, gritty, and nearly depressing novel that finds a former religion professor repeatedly striking rock bottom, but Egerton is able, even in the deepest, darkest bowels to drag his main character through, to find a bleak, often laugh-out loud, streak of humor.
Oliver Bond has bottomed out. A former professor of religion in Austin, Texas, he has lost his young child, his wife, and the life he once knew. Bond, smug and intelligent in the appropriately obnoxious ways, finds himself living in a metal shack, unable to pay rent, trying to figure out just what he did to make everything go so very wrong. Lyle, his chain-smoking, drug-dealing, laxly criminal, compulsive liar of a ‘best friend’ turns him on to the idea of the Hollow Earth, an age-old conspiracy theory that posits a second world inside the one we know accessible by gaping holes in the North Pole. Searching for anything to help him find purchase, Bond, barely a believer, grasps the loose threads of Lyle’s crackpot theory. On the edges of his life are other, even more destitute characters—a dying man quietly smoking himself to death, a Russian prostitute and her abusive, dangerous pimp, and a former student still trolling the edges of danger and seduction. Bond searches for funds for a scam-feeling expedition to the Hollow Earth, and as he spins further and further out of control, Egerton weaves in the events that lead Bond so close to the edge. This is a book about a man trying to find his way back to the light, small and distant as it may be.
In Hollow, Egerton asks an age-old question: “If there is a God who delineates our path in life, why would that path ever lead into the darkness?” Bond has lost his child, and unable to cope with the loss of his wife, he now perches precariously on the edge of homelessness and trauma-induced mental illness. Bond is a former academic, a bright mind with an observant, spiritual bent, and through his purview, Egerton is able to chronicle the fall from grace, and the nail-wrenching struggle to pull oneself back up. Bond is, like Lyle’s beliefs of the insides of the Earth, hollow, gutted by the tragedies that have befallen him, attempting to fill the empty space inside with whatever he can. He wants to believe, in the idea of the Hollow Earth, in the frayed threads still connecting him to his ex-wife, in the friendship between him and the dying Martin, hell, in anything that might give him reason to believe what has befallen him has reason. It is a quietly beautiful rumination on what it means to have faith, and what we do when that rug is suddenly pulled out from underneath us.
Egerton is relentless in his abuse of Oliver Bond. If his past is riddled with hardship, his present life dips from pretty shitty to almost unbearably bleak. By the end of the book there has been murder, betrayal, a swing into mental breakdown and more; all of it an intricately wrought narrative that seeks to expose the very core of whom Bond is. Amazingly enough, as pitch black as this book gets, Egerton still finds humor in his characters. Almost entirely, these are characters as close to the bottom as possibly could be, but there’s a morbid sense of humor and of existence that threads through all of them. Lyle in particular is a one-liner machine, a knuckleheaded believer who, in trying to help Bond, pulls him further away from who he really is.
There’s a believable sweetness in Bond’s relationships with Lyle and Martin—his dying friend—and it stems from Egerton’s warm, evocative writing and his ability to take big philosophical ideas and imbue them with simple, yet revelatory statements. At one point Bond, as close to the end of his rope as possible describes his mental state: “The universe is not killing me. The universe is not saving me. The universe is just here.” As straightforward as the statement is, it illuminates the theme of the novel—Bond wants nothing more than to find a reason for why so much shit has been heaped upon him, but in the end, his fate (if such a thing even exists) is his own. And even if there’s nothing above, or nothing below to believe in, he can find a way back from the bottom, by the power of his own two hands.