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.