It's rare to find a novel where the protagonist's name is never revealed and which centers around his personal and professional lives; both headed towards a collision of ideals and the mass destruction of everything familiar. With the hero facing catastrophe at home and at work (where all his environmental research points to an impending disaster) there seem to be few moves he can take towards positive change - and yet, The Unorthodox Ox is all about these moves, providing readers with a series of familiar scenarios that involve soul-searching rituals, and uncertain interactions.
How does one get to the point of no return, where all choices seem to lead to dead ends? The Unorthodox Ox follows the protagonist's evolution (or lack of it), questioning the meaning of life and its routines: "He was listening to him and was thinking maybe that it was going to be no different for himself one day. He would be a solitary figure, disconsolate, without faith, powerless, questionably loved, and what he would have to say for himself would be nothing more than what it was in actual fact."
Now, the protagonist isn't necessarily a 'hero', especially in the beginning. He's just a man trudging through life and facing its inevitable obstacles with a wry combination of observation and dread: "…maybe it’s better to do nothing than to find out afterwards that there was nothing we could have done. I believe that? And you know, today, I read the Endangered Species Report, and so you and others ought to be aware of the fact that it’s getting indisputable how the natural world is becoming unnatural, and so I wasn’t surprised how I figured out what was what, and when doing so, I realized as I was checking over old extinctions, that I’ll never have the opportunity to see a number of long gone dead ducks, neither will you, for that matter. Then I’d have liked to have seen a Labrador duck or a Great Auk. And it will be worse when we see the ones gone that we have seen in our lifetime. That will be one day to forget or never forget."
While ennui leads him to continually choose watching over action, eventually he comes to acknowledge choices that will make a difference and which could ultimately result in a better marriage partner and a better world.
How he comes to this realization (and how he finally takes action) is the subject of a slow, quiet 'come to Jesus' kind of novel. That's not to say The Unorthodox Ox is spiritual per say; just that the kinds of life-changing revelations the protagonist evolves to understand are those that ultimately involve us all in choices surrounding rebirth, change and death.
One consistent theme here is death and its impact: "He listened to requiems throughout the night and on other nights and for the rest of what was a lifetime he opened his ears to requiems, that were not a part of the repertoire of the woman he loved and was to go on worshipping, and they were not joyful requiems. No. They were the large important and dramatic requiems of loss and endless sorrow, full of somber cellos and double basses and bellowing ox-like wind instruments, and choruses of voices calling out for a shred of forgiveness."
A novel's usual elements of action and surprise are relatively lacking here. Think 'Saul Bellow' and a story line very much centered around the protagonist's self-inspection and slow evolution, and think 'old memories, old habits, and new beginnings' as you follow The Unorthodox Ox's saga of a fumbling man's interactions with a woman who is difficult and bitter in her own way.
Readers who enjoy Bellow's approach will find much to like in the slowly-evolving nature of the characters of The Unorthodox Ox. Those seeking vivid action and high drama should look elsewhere; for like a slow simmer, The Unorthodox Ox is more interested in the fruits of hours of slow cooking than the immediacy of fire and passion.
Do not be fooled by the title of the book. The Unorthodox Ox, by Thomas Morison, isn’t about animals, though the novel’s protagonist works as an administrator in an environmental company and animals play a significant role in the story - especially one poor cat that was hit by a car. This accident had an immense impact on the protagonist’s life. Readers should be aware that the book isn’t a quick and easy page-turner, and death is a constant theme in this novel about one man’s soul-searching.
“So there was his destiny that he would not have believed possible, but it was inevitable, despite his or anyone’s incredulity.”
Once an enthusiastic field naturalist who saw himself as a part of nature and dreamed about going to Madagascar and catching its unique beetles, Harold has become an unsatisfied department manager. He also is also very disappointed in his marriage. This combination of events - at home and reports and memos about the extinction of endangered species - creates an atmosphere of impending disaster. He perceives the world as a living hell. Having bad recurring dreams, he is convinced that his life is ruined. He isn’t even sure who he is anymore, and keeps a folder of enraged resignation letters and suicide notes in his office. He is lost, but despises becoming a slave to old obligations. He hates the idea of being self-pitying for the rest of his life. Understanding that some sacrifices should be made to save his lost soul, he tries to trust and follow his instincts. However, some of these instinctive decisions are questionable.
The book is a kind of parable and it is symbolic that the protagonist appeared here only under his first name, Harold. According to the dictionary, this name is etymologically close to herald. So maybe his main message is that “there are circumstances for which the choices there are to make will be regretted even when choosing to do nothing is the wise idea.”