(JTA) — If one were to imagine what the prophet Jonah saw on his way down into the gullet of the whale, it might be something like this:
He slides feet first into its mouth on two inches of warm slime, the effluvia of a thousand squids past. Tooth sockets above him now, rancid black pits. Teeth passing on either side, yellowed cones, one missing, one fractured, one putrid with rot…The quaking cave of the mouth…His bare foot plants into a cold mash.
The scene, however, is actually a passage from one of the year’s buzziest novels: “Whalefall,” by Daniel Kraus, tells of a 17-year-old diver named Jay Gardiner who is swallowed by a massive sperm whale, in whose innards he is forced to reconcile with responsibility for his late father’s last wishes while desperately trying to escape. The book has already been optioned for a movie by Ron Howard and Brian Glazer’s Imagine Entertainment.
Though billed by its publisher as “The Martian” meets “127 Hours,” “Whalefall” is actually a modern midrash on a very ancient biblical book — one Jews will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
The novel is divided into two sections, “Truth” and “Mercy,” the tension between which the Book of Jonah sits. The ancient prophet, after all, is given a commandment by God to warn residents of the Assyrian city of Nineveh to repent, lest they be punished. Identified as “son of Amitai” — that is, “son of Truth” — Jonah objects to the possibility of repentance and God’s forgiveness, taking it to be a compromise of divine justice.
Refusing the order, Jonah flees by boat to Tarshish, a distant city. God sends a storm to toss the boat, yet an unrepentantly defiant Jonah heads to his cabin, content to sleep his way through a watery death. “Arise, call to your God,” comes the desperate cry of the sailors on the ship. “Why are you asleep? Perhaps mercy will be granted upon us by God and we will be spared.”
Jonah, under pressure, admits that he is the cause of the heavenly wrath, and the sailors, hesitatingly, haul him overboard. There, swallowed by a large fish, he cries out to God from Sheol, a netherworldly dark place of despair. Jonah yearns, in the fifth verse of the book’s second chapter, to merit reconciling with God by visiting his holy Temple.
“Whalefall” is also told with a dual structure, jumping between flashbacks to Jay’s childhood and frequent fights with his belligerent, zealous and neglectful father, and Jay’s race-against-the-oxygen-tank attempt to emerge from the whale. At one point, Jay falls out with his father and flees to the home of a girl named Chloe Tarshish, where he sleeps on a futon and watches foreign films.
In “Whalefall,” Sheol Landfill is on the outskirts of Salinas, California, where — a year before the suicide of Jay’s terminally ill father, Mitt — Mr. Sheol would let a 10-year-old Jay and his eco-warrior dad sift through the junkyard for castoff diving gear. Reassuring an anxious Jay that his father will emerge safely from the trash heap, Sheol comforts him: “This here’s my temple. Nothing happens without my say-so.”
The novel’s title comes from the scientific term for how a dead whale sinks to the bottom of the ocean. There its body is stripped by crustaceans and other sea creatures, sustaining an underwater ecosystem for years to come.
Jay’s own father chose a similar fate, as the novel reveals. A once vibrant and fit man — who would awaken Jay and his sisters with a daily call of “Sleepers, arise!” — he slowly descended into depression. A combination of cancer and melancholy over humanity’s destructive attitude towards nature led him to weigh down his body with diving weights and jump off of the side of a friend’s ship. When the friend, a kindly Jewish dentist named Hewey, informs Jay what happened, Jay can’t even bring himself to cry, so raw are his psychological wounds from his and his father’s quarrels.
Hewey, whose name is perhaps a punning allusion to the four-letter name for God traditionally unpronounced by Jews, embodies God’s moral argument for mercy in the Book of Jonah. And while at no point in the novel is Jonah actually named, it’s Hewey who brings him up: “Let me tell you the lesson of this prophet,” he says. “Truth never outweighs mercy.”
Jay is trapped in the whale during an ill-advised solo dive looking to recover his father’s body. Off the coast of Monterey Beach after dark, he encounters an Architeuthis, a deep ocean-dwelling squid. While sperm whales don’t normally eat humans, they do eat squid, and Jay is taken into the whale’s mouth in a whirl of water. A sequence of dangers compounds his rapidly depleting air supply, including floating sharp objects, the whale’s crushing internal organs and a carabiner that he can’t dislodge from his diving gear while attempting to swim to safety.
As the New York Times put it in its review, “At a certain point he begins to seem less like Jonah and more like Job — the hapless vessel for every bit of bad luck you can think of, and a lot more besides.”
As Jay processes what he still owes his father while desperately fighting to return to shore, subtle allusions to Jonah surface. For every memory of his father’s abuse, there is a recollection of the lives he saved — just as the sailors on Jonah’s boat were spared. The sympathy Jay feels towards the swallowed squid could be an allusion to God’s argument, in the closing verse of Jonah, about the grace he will grant not only to the thousands of Ninevites “who cannot distinguish between their right and their left” but also to the similarly deserving “many animals.”
More explicit is Jay’s internal wrestling with whether we can change our very nature — a central preoccupation of the Book of Jonah and, of course, Yom Kippur. After all, it is Jonah, the son of Truth, who is “displeased” when God spares the Ninevites. Jonah cannot accept that God has changed God’s mind, or that the Ninevites might be persuaded to change their ways. He cannot accept forgiveness of wrongs.
Kraus is a horror writer who worked with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the hit film “The Shape of Water” and created the books that inspired the Netflix series “Trollhunters.” Early in his career, he made documentaries about American workers including Rabbi Jay Holstein, Kraus’ former professor at the University of Iowa whose class “The Judeo-Christian Tradition” he said was among the most formative he took.
Alongside conscious allusions to Pinnochio, Moby Dick, John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” Kraus seems to offer a Christian understanding of Jonah. At one point Jay recalls his father’s noting that “a life of poor choices could be washed from you every time you dipped under,” a clear allusion to baptism. (It’s not a spoiler to say that Mitt’s body, like that of Jesus, is never found.)
Yet Jonah’s message in the Jewish tradition differs from Kraus’ reading. Forgiveness is not to be sought in superseding earthly existence and seeking rebirth through death. The pre-High Holiday custom to dip in the mikvah is a this-worldly charge to repair what has been sundered, in our relationships and in our environment, through our own imperfect individual efforts. We struggle, like Jay and like Jonah, with the obligations foisted on us by our ancestors. At the same time, we hope to find in ourselves the capacity to change and the mercy of God, that ability to forgive even when it feels untrue to our principles, as God did the Ninevites.
At one point, amidst the dark deep, Jay realizes he’s “got time to arrange his final thought. What would he like it to be?” When faced with the same choice, what will be our answer?