“36 is a dark, depressing journey through a future no one would ever want to see happen.”
Ancient Jewish legend tells of 36 righteous ones, tzadikim, people born into every generation who, even unknown to themselves, save the world through their own good deeds. In the near future, someone is murdering the righteous ones one by one and detective Eric Lonnrot and his friend, a traumatized genocide survivor, Nahum Applefeld, are racing to save them and, in turn, the world.
At least, that’s what how the book starts out. What actually unfolds is a disturbing trek around the world from one ravaged city to another. The earth is covered with hot spots where terrorists have ignited dirty bombs. There is guerilla warfare taking place in the Middle East, South Africa, and even parts of Europe.
Travelers never know when their plane might be taken down by surface-to-air missiles or the seeming travel authorities turn out to be members of a guerrilla terrorist group who weeds out the less desirable, shooting them in the head and leaving their bodies to bake in the sun.
The reader is treated to page after page after page of human tragedy and horror. Religious extremism. Rape. Murder. Torture. And one dead tzadik after another. When Lonnrot meets one who he thought was a tzadik but turns out to be one of the terrorist bombers who took out half of London, Applefeld leaves on his own quest.
When he was a young boy in Israel, Applefeld met Liora, a redhead who tutored him in math. He’s carried her picture with him ever since, on some level saving himself for her. He thought she was killed during the exodus from Israel that brought him and his mother to the United States, but learned that there was hope that she had survived. He goes to find her . . . and find her he does . . . only to discover her life was more tragic than anything he’d ever heard.
36 is a dark, depressing journey through a future no one would ever want to see happen. Every turn of the page brings the reader another horror, another tragedy. The implication is that things have gotten so dark because there are fewer tzadikim—that God has forsaken the Earth because we couldn’t protect them.
And through all this darkness, your guides are two damaged, broken, self-loathing people searching for a ray of redemption. Although supposedly best friends, they discover they don’t know—or even much like—each other at all. Lonnrot discovers that Applefeld’s past has tormented him more that he realized. And Applefeld discovers that Lonnrot has a dark past from which he desperately wants forgiveness and salvation—something neither Applefeld nor the tzadikim can provide.
Although well written, 36 is emotionally difficult to read. The bright spots are few and usually set somewhere in the past. The glimmer of hope is tenuous at best, a red herring at worst.