Book Review: A PHILOSOPHY OF RUIN asks if personal destruction comes from free will or determinism

Mancusi, Nicholas - A Philosophy of RuinA Philosophy of Ruin
Nicholas Mancusi

Oscar Boatwright is shocked when he receives a call that his mother died on a flight from Hawaii to California. His parents live in Indiana, and he had no idea that they were coming to visit him, much less that they’d been in Hawaii. Soon, he learns the purpose behind their trip. His mother, Delia, suffering lifelong depression, had fallen under the spell of self-help guru Paul St. Germaine. Starting slow, she watched all of his video seminars, then started attending seminars in Hawaii, and finally paid extra for special session with St. Germaine himself. Because this seemed to help Delia, Lee consented.

However, these expensive sessions have not only stripped the elder Boatwrights of their entire savings; they also owe over $20,000. An assistant professor of philosophy who barely makes over $20,000 a year before taxes, Oscar isn’t in much of a position to help his father. He hoped his older sister Grace, married to a wealthy businessman, might contribute, but at the funeral, he learns that she is getting divorced and planned to ask her parents for help with her legal bills.

Oscar illegally downloads St. Germaine’s video lectures and learns that his lessons revolve around embracing insignificance and rejecting free will. Not only is he angry with this man who he felt cheated his parents out of their money; he is offended that St. Germaine is perverting his field, philosophy, with conclusions based on false premises and faulty evidence.

Meanwhile, the term has begun and Oscar revs up to teach his Intro to Philosophy class and grade the many papers his students submit. In his free time, when not watching St. Germaine’s lectures, he spends time with his one friend, Sundeep, another professor in his department. Sundeep convinces him to attend a guest lecture, and the lecturer enjoys the graduate school groupies so insists on dinner at a bar instead of a restaurant. Oscar drinks heavily, and early that morning wakes up with a young woman in his bed.

The next day, he is mortified to learn that that the young woman, Dawn, is a student in one of his classes. Although he tries to extricate himself from the entanglement to protect his career, he is undeniably drawn to her and unsuccessful in cutting personal ties. Their relationship becomes even more complicated when she tells him that she is a drug dealer and needs him to make a pick-up for him. He’ll earn a large sum, but if he refuses, she might report their sexual encounters.

Oscar knows that he shouldn’t agree, but he fears the consequences of refusing, he’s tempted by the money, and he’s seduced by the danger. Once he picks up the package, though, the danger is greater than he imagined, and his training as a philosophy instructor certainly is insufficient when confronting rival drug dealers and partners he can’t trust.

Although Oscar had adamantly rejected St. Germaine’s message, his trajectory since his mother died questioned the very foundations of his life philosophy. Was he in control of his behavior, making decisions that led him from point to point? Or was his free will a myth, his path established long ago and out of his control?

Setting a philosophy professor against a self-help guru offered a new and interesting take on the concept of free will, but A Philosophy of Ruin did not take full use of the opportunity. The kind of questions I would expect Oscar to ask due to his academic training were missing. The dialectic between free will and determinism formed the overarching theme of the novel, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t addressed in this way.

At times, Oscar was a sympathetic character, and Mancusi’s prose to describe his inner dialogue was so spot on, I thought he was describing my own thoughts. As Oscar descended deeper into ruin, though, he was less fathomable, though I suppose that’s the point.

As a character, though she had potential, Dawn never fully came together for me since it was never quite clear what her motives were and if she was being sincere or manipulative. She did show, however, that she was willing to make sacrifices for her partners.

Though his foray into drug dealing might be the biggest danger he faces, Oscar’s largest challenge is coming to terms with St. Germaine and his ideas, and his final accounting as well as the ending of the book, including his father’s role, were unsatisfying to me.

That said, A Philosophy of Ruin, a quick read, offers a portrait of an ordinary and even boring man whose life quickly diverges into an otherworldly disaster provoking the question: at what point can personal tragedy be averted?

Thanks to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.