Noah Ashenhurst’s novel Comfort Food takes chances, unlike so much meaningless, trashy, fast-food fiction today - fiction that does not inspire you to think. Comfort Food compels the reader to stop and consider life in general and lives in particular.
It takes chances in introducing us to characters who, at the beginning, seem like ships without rudders – slackers and stoners, selfish and self-absorbed young men and women who seem to have no direction or sense of purpose. You find it hard to care about them at first, feeling they are reaping what they have sowed. As the story progresses, however, you begin to see that they are trying to find their way in life amidst all the external forces that wear on them as they try to form identities and ideologies in a morally bankrupt age.
The novel investigates the lives of six people, who early on in the novel are all under one roof at a house party. In subsequent sections, each of these lives is put under the microscope for further study. We meet Stan, a graduate student; Delany, a writer; John, a musician; Brian, a doper roommate of Stan’s; Dave, a mountain climber; and Bridgette, a reformed heroin addict, as well as an assortment of supporting characters as these people live their lives with and apart from each other in various combinations.
The story takes us to the states of Washington, Alaska, and Utah; to the European cities of Prague and Budapest; and to Mt. Denali and Nepal. Food plays an integral role in the book, hence the title, as the characters form relationships over, find solace in, and banter ideas across various culinary concoctions from fast-food to finer fare.
The book is at its best when it shows the characters lives transforming before their very eyes. The author skillfully relates to the reader the deepest inner thoughts of his characters as they strive to understand the direction their lives are taking. Like an intricate jazz chord progression, these characters find themselves building the songs which are their lives.
We have Stan choosing to immerse his life in literature:
“His parents were not surprised…-a silent indication that they had always known his romantic depth.”
We see Delany mired in work at a salmon processing plant in Alaska:
“…they could smell the distinct stench of dead salmon that coated everything. It was a pervasive perfume that reminded Del of fatigue and boredom.”
We experience, with Brian, his tormented relationship with his brother Toby:
“What no one but Brian seemed to know was that most of what Toby told was lies. The truth to him was relative – relative to what someone else wanted to hear.”
We begin to understand John through his Eastern European travels:
“Looking back at his time in Prague seemed like a story he was told by someone else…He realized that he was waking from the kind of reverie which makes waking life unusually boring and cruel.”
We feel, somewhat, Bridgette’s pain in being abandoned by her heroin-loving ‘friends’:
“Bridgette had shared a lot with her friends, virtually everything, and in the end they were just like everyone else. When push came to shove, they bailed.”
We share Dave’s awe of the raw beauty of nature:
“He traveled across frozen wastes of rock, ice, and snow where every breath was a struggle. He began to crave these places of sacred and unbelievable power where he could shed the trappings and armor of civilization.”
As the book progresses, we begin to associate these characters’ hopes, dreams, and fears with our own. We have been there – if not in the actual circumstance, certainly in the drama and meaning of the circumstance.
The novel’s shortcomings are limited to two aspects. The wide expanse of ideas and themes covered in dealing with six characters causes our attention to be spread thin instead of focused on one or two main people. Also, there is a short passage in the book (pp. 205-207) where it is obvious the author’s political views are being espoused. You get the sense the author is lecturing you, that he is telling you what he thinks and that his characters are not the thrust behind these musings on geopolitics.
Those are minor points in an overall deep and multi-layered novel which is rich in subtext. More authors should confront and deal with real life in this way. It only serves to enhance the canon of meaningful literature.