Every family is a bunch of unreliable storytellers. That’s not to say that your parents lied when they told you, say, how they met, but time has a way of distorting memories, and fiction transparently and subconsciously replaces fact in our minds. Or as the narrator of Joshua Ferris’ dazzling new novel puts it, “Every story we tell ourselves is a version of the imaginary.”
He does not fail to pretend A call for Charlie Barnes, Ferris’ fifth and best book. The main character is an investment advisor living in suburban Chicago who manages funds for retirees. He is also, explains the narrator, “a big fat fraudster,” a half-silly dreamer whose business plans never materialize. âHe was born a nobody and that’s how he would die,â the narrator writes, trying to inhabit the mind of the man in his 68th year and fifth marriage.
Narrator Jake Barnes (Hemingway’s cry is intentional) has reason to believe he knows what’s going on in Charlie’s brain: he’s Charlie’s son, and his father asked him to relate his life in book form, as sincerely as possible. Jake hopes to redeem his father; if Charlie is a Willy Loman on Lake Michigan, then Jake’s book is a “Attention Must Be Paid” moment.
Ferris’ novel begins with more bad news for Charlie: he’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the “great kahuna” of cancers, and he immediately calls family, friends and foes to tell them the news. news. He hopes to reconcile with his other children, Jerry, a stoner with a constant interest in Eastern religion and not much else, and Marcy, a pungent woman with “funny ideas about 9/11 and fluoride.” The two don’t exactly hate Charlie, but – well, honestly, they kind of hate him.
Potential reconciliations don’t go as planned, especially when Charlie is forced to admit that (a) the person who diagnosed him was, in fact, himself, after scrolling through the internet, and (b) his diagnosis was not, in fact, correct. Charlie is relieved to have a second chance at life – sort of like, “Deadly cancer like that will put things in perspective and everyone in their place. Who cared about this guy?”
Jake tells the story of his father’s attempts to reconnect with his children, interspersed with the story of his life, a Midwesterner who never managed to stay long in a job – or with a woman -. (His nickname, given with a heavy dose of irony, is âSteady Boy.â) His siblings don’t understand his need to redeem his father, âa fairly standard mid-century model, Updikean in his faults and his failings. indulgences, “and they I don’t want to give the man a second chance, despite Jake’s repeated pleas:” We’re here, fools, to forgive each other, “he said, but not out loud .
And then things take a series of left turns. In the ingeniously structured final third of the book, the narrative begins to derail, causing the reader to wonder if all of the above was really true. And you can’t say Jake didn’t warn us – early enough in the book he writes, “Now I know what you’re thinking. Jake Barnes has played his part. He’s on Charlie’s side and we can’t. Don’t trust him. He’s unreliable. Yeah, that’s it. Like reliability doesn’t exist anywhere anymore, like it’s always a thing. “
A call for Charlie Barnes wears his metafictional heart on his sleeve, but smart as he is, Ferris never shows the slightest sign of falling in love with his own skill. Literary experiences without heat tend to fall flat for most readers, but Ferris’ novel is – remarkably, given its flawed subject matter – full of heart. When it comes to business, Charlie can’t win to lose, but he’s a consistently lovable character, and when he is in pain, the reader’s heart breaks. In one scene, Charlie sneaks into Jake’s rental car, trying to hook up with indifferent strangers – it’s a perfect portrayal of man’s pain, sadness, and hopelessness.
In his previous work, Ferris has proven himself to be one of the best American comedy fiction writers in business today. His humor is in the spotlight with A call for Charlie Barnes, but so are his intelligence and compassion; it is a masterpiece that sheds a revealing light on both the family and the fiction itself. As Jake reflects: “Real life makes good novels because it’s lived like a bunch of lies, and because fictions of one genre or another are the only things worth being. lived. “