Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman
Simon & Schuster, 2019; 296 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Narratives of addiction are often under a rote formula, but in Johannes Lichtman’s humorous novel Such Good Work we see not only the familiar aspects of addiction but a frank address of the tedium and hopelessness of a life more sober. Lichtman’s protagonist, a professor named Jonas, continuously tries a change of scenery to escape his past of substance abuse, moving from Wilmington, North Carolina to Portland, Oregon and still not escaping his solitude and the temptations his solitude poses. Reaching back into his heritage, he returns to his mother’s birthplace, Sweden, to pursue graduate school and to entrench himself in a culture that he hopes will keep the drugs from him.
Jonas tries at first to distract himself with dating and drinking in the dorm of his university at Lund, and somewhat succeeds at the dating aspect until his German girlfriend tires of waiting for him to be present. Jonas, trying again for change, moves from the university campus in Lund to an apartment in the somewhat neighboring town of Malmo, Sweden, and begins the hard work of finishing his thesis and trying to find his place in a world where he has to fill the days on his own, where “places were interchangeable,” where “Everywhere is the best place ever—and then the worst.” He manages to fill his days with not only the academic aspects of his studies, but the role he takes in welcoming refugees from the Middle East who poured into Europe in 2015. Jonas accepts a job teaching Swedish via English to the refugees waiting in Malmo for permanent placement in Sweden. Jonas learns in the process of befriending and mentoring the refugees that he is not the only person in Sweden trying to push through the nightmares of his past via awkward social interactions and learning how to be emotionally present in the distractions of smartphones. Jonas finds himself starting to heal, only to find that terrorist events in Europe destroy all of the good intentions of him and his fellow mentors, forcing him in a position of showing patience in the face of easy assumptions. Jonas makes mistakes in his journey, mistakes he didn’t even know were a possibility, framing a patience for himself as well. After his thesis is complete, he journeys back to the United States to officiate a wedding, and a former student relates to his fight with addiction, and the refugees’ struggle with culture shock, in telling of her own struggle to learn her job as a airline attendant:
My problem was that I was so scared of being wrong. Every flight, a passenger would call me over and ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to. They’d ask me what lake we were flying over or what mountain range, and I’d be so focused on doing my job right that I wouldn’t even remember what flight I was on. Even when I knew the answer, I wouldn’t know the answer . . .
And then, one day, I wasn’t pretending to be a flight attendant anymore. I just was one.
With Jonas’s former student’s confession, Lichtman points, boldly, to the fear of failure that a recovering addict may be fighting to avoid slipping back to, that a Middle Eastern refugee may be trying to avoid conveying in his new home. Lichtman gently places the story on the spot where we are all self-conscious, to the point of paralyzing our own progress, and leaves us with the hope of, if anything else, self-forgiveness.