A Philosophy of Ruin by Nicholas Mancusi: A review

I saw a review of this book and was intrigued by the summary of its plot of having a philosophy professor plucked from his safe if boring life and pushed into the world of drug-runners. It seemed to have possibilities. Moreover, it was another debut novel and my recent experience with first novels has been very good so I was ready to give another one a chance.

Oscar Boatwright is the professor - actually assistant professor making barely $20,000 a year - of philosophy in question. His school is never actually named but is somewhere on the West Coast. He teaches introductory classes as well as some more advanced ones.  He seems to be sleepwalking through his existence until one day he is shocked into wakefulness by a phone call. He is told that his mother has died on an airplane flight from Hawaii. He had no idea his parents were in Hawaii. After all, they lived in Indiana.

Oscar learns that his mother, who had suffered from lifelong clinical depression, had fallen under the sway of a self-help guru named Paul St. Germaine. She had watched all of his tapes assiduously and had followed that up by attending his seminars in Hawaii. All of this seemed to be helping her and so her husband, Lee, went along with it. They were returning from one of the seminars in Hawaii when she died.

As Oscar absorbs all of this new information about his parents, he also learns from his father that the seminars and other accoutrements of St. Germaine's "self-help" program have taken all his parents' savings and, in fact, they are now $20,000 in debt to him. When he calls his sister in Indiana to inform her of their mother's death, she is devastated, not only by the death but also by the fact that she had hoped to get some financial help from her parents. She is divorcing her successful businessman husband.

To drown his sorrows, Oscar goes out drinking with friends and meets a young woman whom he ends up taking home and to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, she is gone. Later, he is appalled when he recognizes her sitting in one of his intro classes. She is one of his students! His liaison with her could cost him his job if it becomes known.

Although he attempts to extricate himself from the situation, he finds himself inextricably drawn to the young woman whose name is Dawn. He seems unable to resist the continuing sexual relationship. Then the bill comes due.

Dawn explains that she needs his help in bringing "a shipment" in from the border. If he refuses, she will expose their relationship to the university administration. 

His mother is dead, his parents' money is all gone, his sister is in the middle of a divorce, and his meager earnings do not permit him to help anyone, hardly even himself. He is promised a big payoff if he will simply pick up a package and deliver it. How can he say no?

Of course, the pick-up and delivery do not turn out to be as simple as advertised. There are bad guys who also want that package and are willing to kill to get it. The odds of Oscar ever making it home again do not seem promising.

As Oscar's odds declined, so did the novel's. It started out promisingly enough, but by midway through, the plot was becoming a bit unraveled. Character development was minimal at best. I never really got to know what motivated Oscar. Philosophy? A belief in free will? He just seemed a sad-sack with no real passions. Dawn was just a cipher. Who knows who she really was or what she wanted? And the same was true of the father and sister. I was disappointed in it all. After all that, the ending was really just a hot mess. It was unsatisfying and didn't resolve anything. 

My conclusion is that the idea for the novel was intriguing and definitely had possibilities, but the execution did not do it justice.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars    


  1. I was ready to go get this book for the first half of your review! You followed the trajectory almost too well. Thanks for sparing me from a fairly worthless read.

    1. I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone from reading a book. After all, reading tastes are very individual and what didn't appeal to me might just be someone else's cup of tea. That being said, I think I know enough about your taste to say that you probably would not enjoy this one.


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