A Monk Jumped Over a Wall

16 of February 2009

by Jay Nussbaum (Toby Press)

Few authors can be credited with the achievement of writing a well-crafted novel about soup, but this is exactly what Jay Nussbaum achieves with his second novel.  The eponymous, mythical soup in question, served at Oriental restaurants, gets it name from the tale about a monk who, from the confines of his monastery, could smell the delicious soup being created for a nearby rich man, and found the aroma so irresistible that he renounced his vows and jumped over the wall of the monastery just to get a taste.  It’s the old ‘grass is greener…’ dilemma: was the monk foolish, or did he do the right thing?  Could he ever have been happy in the monastery once he had smelled the soup, or did he sacrifice everything of value on a whim?

This novel takes the above story and places it in a contemporary setting.  The start of the novel throws us right into the thankless world of JJ, a trainee lawyer whose blood-sucking firm is out to make lots of money at the expense of a conscience.  JJ finds that his career increasingly conflicts with his ethics, but continues to work hard in the hope of qualifying as a lawyer and gaining the validation he’s been seeking ever since his abusive father -also a lawyer - told him he would amount to nothing.  Nussbaum uses wonderful truisms to illustrate the narrative, for example, in this quotation about JJ’s otherwise heartless boss:

“Carter Boston once told me he’d shed genuine tears the day he heard the news about the World Trade Towers.  But the people who died in those buildings were the same ones we cut off in traffic every day.  They were the people we dismiss when our legs outrun theirs and win us the only taxi on a rainy night…Why do we mourn their deaths but care so little about their lives?”

Three days before JJ is due for a big raise, a chance encounter with a couple of the firm’s ‘victims’ leads JJ to make a vital decision, and the consequences spiral.  The novel then cleverly flits between ensuing events and flashbacks to JJ’s university days, when he befriends a prominent professor who is to have a profound effect on his life.

Although fictitious enough to avoid being a ’self-help’ book, Nussbaum has nevertheless managed to create a work that raises important points about remaining true to yourself whilst attempting to please those who care about you.  As JJ says, “I live my life at the mercy and whim of everyone who matters to me.” The relationships JJ has with his family - his mother whom, more than anyone else, he looks to for praise, and his younger brother, Leo - are touching and poignant, and moments of humour are carefully juxtaposed with descriptions of hard times.  JJ is a character with whom the reader cannot help but sympathise and, having gained our trust, the reader is both taken in and fooled by the protagonist who may seem flaky but, in the end, is anything but.  I found myself rooting for JJ and his rebellion against the system, because he has the courage to rock the boat where so often we all choose to play it safe.

Another feat on Nussbaum’s part is to intertwine the two themes of law and martial arts.  This unusual espousal seems strange at first - for a reader unfamiliar with karate, long descriptions of varying kicks and punches can seem somewhat tedious - but once the rigours of the study of law and the practice of karate (and indeed, vice versa) have been introduced, they combine to add another dimension to a protagonist struggling to achieve greatness in all areas of life.  Throw in a bit of philosophy, and a somewhat sadistic sensei (master) we are brought nicely back to the idea of the soup: how can we get past external influences and listen to our inner voice?  Interestingly, the blurb at the back of the books states that Nussbaum is a lawyer who previously taught Eastern philosophy and martial arts at Cornell University in the USA, which leads me to wonder just how much this story might be a reflection of the author’s own life - especially as Nussbaum’s acknowledgements reveal the book was twenty years in the making.

The female characters in the novel seem to be the only ones through which emotions are really expressed.  JJ pines after girlfriends, is tender towards his mother, and only witnesses his favourite professor’s caring side through conversations with his wife.  At times the relationships can seem clichéd or predictable (such as the initially ‘no-strings-attached’ dalliances JJ has with a female roommate), but this is balanced by the ongoing uncertainty of events posed at the very beginning and only resolved towards the end.  The reader is kept in suspense, and by painting a complex picture of JJ’s dilemmas, Nussbaum manages to cleverly distract us from an outcome we realise was meant to be.

© Rebecca Strong 2007

First published in Issue 3 of The Small Press Review, 2007

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