“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – The Dark Knight

That quote from filmmaker Christopher Nolan resonated with me as I read this complex and extremely satisfying novel from Joshua S Joseph. The protagonist in this, a young Indian man with the unique name of Dak Ackerthefifth — a name blamed on the same slip of the entry pen used on Ellis Island while in-taking droves of new American citizens to our country.

DAK ACKERTHEFIFTH AND THE ETHICS OF HEROISM is more of a spiritual journey than a work of fiction and the reader is privileged to go along for the ride. Throughout Dak’s life he seeks to understand the precept of what it means to be a hero. We understand that for one to be a hero you must pick a side — hero or villain — but we also learn that life is not that black and white and often times it is not clear as to which side you are on. The story begins with the death of his parents, Richard and Rudy. Our narrator indicates that the death of parents is the way every good hero story starts — but be mindful, this is no Disney tale.

Richard Ackerthefifth was a ballpoint pen magnate who allegedly died during a business trip to the Congo — or so Dak’s mother told him. Rudy was left to raise 8-year-old Dak and his younger sister, Emily. Regrettably, or in keeping with the hero plan, Rudy passes away when Dak is 14. Her death is blamed solely on Crazy Uncle Ji. He was not an actual ‘Uncle’ but was given that honorific title by their mother. Shortly after Rudy was diagnosed with cancer, Crazy Uncle Ji gave her a cocktail of various supplements that initially helped her but then quickly pushed her into a physical nosedive that she never recovered from.

Now, young Dak is sent to Boarding School while Emily is placed into foster care. It is while attending the Ellsworth School that Dak had his first taste of heroism. Initially, Dak thought this came from the altercation he got into with another student over the death of one of their classmates. Actually, his heroic act took place on a class ski trip. A smaller classmate, Pard, was partnered with Dak on the trip and he slipped from the chairlift while it was climbing up the mountain. Dak grabbed Pard and held on until it was safe to let go, essentially saving Pard’s life.

The next chapter in Dak’s journey involved his moving in with his Aunt Rhoda once he was ‘done’ with Boarding School. She lived in Manhattan, which ended up being the ideal testing ground for Dak’s theories of heroism. The trouble was that Aunt Rhoda was a ‘hideous human being’ who was taking care of Dak more for the benefits she received from the Foundation his father had left behind than out of any sense of familial responsibility. At one point, his sister Emily comes to stay for a short visit. Emily implores her brother not to let her be taken back to foster care again, an experience that has included a number of different families each ending with her being sent back into the system. Unfortunately, Dak is not old enough yet to make such a decision and his Aunt Rhoda explains that foster care is what Emily needs as she suffers from various mental issues that require constant supervision.