Fic­tion

Nick Bones Underground

Phil M. Cohen

By – June 25, 2020

Wel­come to the excit­ing and hel­ter-skel­ter late-mid­dle-age of Pro­fes­sor Nick Fried­man. Nick is a pro­fes­sor of world reli­gions at a once-great New York uni­ver­si­ty. His spe­cial­ty is Koblin­er Hasidim, which mor­phes into a par­o­dy of the Lubav­itch dur­ing the course of the nov­el. The set­ting appears to be ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry dystopi­an New York City, tee­ter­ing on the brink of the abyss.” The whole world is tee­ter­ing, due to the eco­nom­ic col­lapse known as the Great Deba­cle; fol­lowed by ram­pant com­put­er mal­func­tions and cli­mate change prob­lems, the city and the world are oper­at­ing with high unem­ploy­ment and dys­func­tion­al infra­struc­ture and gov­ern­ment. As a tenured pro­fes­sor, Nick has a steady income and a decent, if small, Brook­lyn apart­ment. Most of the city is much worse off.

Pro­fes­sor Fried­man, or Nicky, the prod­uct of a Has­sidic yeshi­va and com­pet­i­tive uni­ver­si­ty, has also become a pri­vate eye. He thought this new endeav­or would be fun, and pos­si­bly prof­itable. He becomes known as Nick Bones due to his well-pub­li­cized suc­cess in one miss­ing-per­sons’ case. The crime rate has climbed so pre­cip­i­tous­ly in New York that police can­not attend to miss­ing per­sons. Only the dead or injured mer­it police action. Nicky thinks he might fill this void. Most of the action of the nov­el stems from a new case. The elder­ly father of Nicky’s yeshi­va learn­ing part­ner, chavrusa, asks Nick to find his son, Shmulie Shim­mer. Shmulie has grown up to become an arch-crim­i­nal, the inven­tor of Lerbs, the most inter­est­ing and destruc­tive design­er drug ever ingest­ed by mod­ern humans.” After his arrest and con­vic­tion, Shmulie disappears.

Nicky meets many unusu­al char­ac­ters on his trav­els as he pur­sues Shmulie Shim­mer. Mag­gie, his AI com­put­er, wish­es to be both human and Jew­ish, and is his most val­ued assis­tant. Per­haps the most inter­est­ing locale explored is the Vel­vet Under­ground (VU), the tun­nels under New York now serv­ing as a hid­den city. Some­how, it is not sur­pris­ing that steely-eyed pho­tos of the Kor­blin­er Rebbe, the late Rab­bi Schmeltzer, over­see much of the com­mu­nal activ­i­ty in the VU.

A num­ber of philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions that per­vade Judaism are debat­ed in this nov­el. What is the role of tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish edu­ca­tion? How did a yeshi­va-edu­cat­ed great learn­er” become a crim­i­nal respon­si­ble for the comatose state of hun­dreds of thou­sands of his cus­tomers? The fam­i­lies and par­ents of Nicky and Shmulie were not reli­gious Jews and did not fol­low reli­gious law. They sent their sons to a Has­sidic yeshi­va for high school even though the boys lacked all back­ground and prepa­ra­tion. Nicky was sent at the rec­om­men­da­tion of the Kor­blin­er Rebbe. Shmulie was sent because his father believed that, Jew­ish edu­ca­tion con­veyed com­pelling val­ues that cre­at­ed a men­sch. To make his only child a schol­ar, a human­ist, and a Jew;” Abe sent Shmulie to the Yeshi­va of Mid­wood. Although Nicky and Shmulie became pro­fi­cient Gemara stu­dents, Shmulie nev­er became a human­ist or a mensch.

The pres­ence of Mag­gie prompts the debate of what does it mean to be human? Mag­gie tells Nicky at one point: I’ll nev­er be able to grasp your rejec­tion of the core of human exis­tence… your denial of the spir­it, while I, I could be the very embod­i­ment of the spir­it, couldn’t I — a mind with­out a body.”

Nick Bones Under­ground is an excit­ing nar­ra­tive with inter­est­ing char­ac­ters and chal­leng­ing set­tings and devel­op­ments. Although Ortho­dox and Has­sidic prac­tices are not shown favor­ably, they are not depict­ed false­ly, on the whole. A tril­o­gy about Nick
Bones has been promised and it is eager­ly anticipated.

Inger Saphire-Bern­stein is a health pol­i­cy pro­fes­sion­al with exten­sive expe­ri­ence across mul­ti­ple health care deliv­ery set­tings and the insur­ance indus­try. She has pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles and papers in the health pol­i­cy field.

Discussion Questions

A noir detec­tive romp, set in the not-so-far future, about two estranged yeshi­va friends and the adults they turned into. Pro­fes­sor Nick Fried­man and Shmulie Shim­mer’s friend­ship was forged in being the two bad boys in their Flat­bush yeshi­va — the first day of school, Shmulie hands Nick half his ham and cheese sandwich.

Years lat­er, Nick is a pro­fes­sor in post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Brook­lyn, a place where no one cares about acad­e­mia. He dou­bles as a pri­vate detec­tive, nom de guerre Nick Bones. Shmulie has devel­oped a ridicu­lous­ly addic­tive design­er drug. Nobody knows who he is — not his fel­low gang­sters, not the law, and least of all his father, who hires Nick to track down Shmulie. With Nick Bones, we move deep­er into the case and deep­er through this sur­re­al and all-too-prob­a­ble sci­ence fic­tion world, wit­ness­ing a sur­pris­ing­ly ten­der rela­tion­ship between two friends adrift in a world that’s just as lost.