Jonas Meitzner, a 21-year-old New York City native, is at the age of questioning. He wonders whether his life will have meaning, whether he will make a mark on the world. Like many young adults, he turns to religion: not the Catholicism of his mother, not the Judaism of his father but maybe Buddhism, yoga, meditation . . . or even radical Islam.
When Jonas stops communicating with his mother, his girlfriend, and his father, they don't immediately notice because they are so focused on their own lives. But one November morning, Carol Meitzner wakes up with a mother's knowledge that something is wrong, and she must find her only child.
Via a series of snapshot peeks at a half a dozen lives, Hamilton takes us through a day and a half in New York City that we won't soon forget. How can the decisions of one young man touch so many people, from the middle-class preteen Mara who misses her father to the self-proclaimed self-employed, homeless-by-choice Sunny Hirt?
It is not clear whether Jonas finds his life's calling as a result of idealism or depression:
He knew what had to be reversed, and why and how. He recognized a will and wisdom greater than his own. The personal wasn't paramount. He was acting out of an obligation larger than himself. (11)
Ever since adolescence, Jonas had suffered from periods of overcast internal weather. He asked so much from life. He demanded stripping away of the skin; he insisted on seeing all the way to the muscles and veins. . . . (83–84)
Or perhaps Jonas hasn't even really made a choice but instead is under the influence of his friend Masoud.
Masoud talked a lot about self-deception and the falseness of what was generally considered reality. And souls—Jonas's soul, primarily. It turned out that talking religion endlessly was not unlike smoking weed; intense, heady, exacting, and finally exhausting. The process had strengthened Jonas's convictions. (56)
31 Hours forces us to stretch our minds to try to understand why Jonas turns from all that is familiar: Do we see merit in Jonas's beliefs that Americans are filled with needless longing and emptiness? Is it true that our country has lost its way? Is violence the right answer to violence?
Hamilton also poses hard questions for parents: To what extent are parents responsible for their adult children's behavior? Is it always the mother's fault when a child makes a poor choice? Is it ever wrong for parents to put their own needs and wants before those of their children?
Even as we hurry to the ending, the novel doesn't let us off the hook. What carries the strongest power: a mother's prayers, a sister's hopes, a beggar's premonitions, or a young man's convictions?
Masha Hamilton has a website where you can learn more about her, her other books, and her work as a journalist.
Published by Unbridled Books, 2009
Challenges 100+, 999
Source: Review copy