A CALLING FOR CHARLIE BARNES by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown, 352 pages, $28
On the first page of Joshua Ferris’ fourth novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, the narrator, a novelist named Jake, informs us that what follows “is a true story.” Oh, sure.
All fictional narrators are unreliable to an extent. But Ferris’ novel positively wallows in unreliability, especially in the way families deploy alternative facts to undermine some relatives and elevate others. Jake has a lot of family to work with — Charlie, his foster father, has been married five times, with various children who are hard to keep track of. Jake’s own position in the Barnes family matrix is deliberately difficult to tease out at first. But if you dare suspect him, he snaps back: “Yeah, right. Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that’s still a thing.”
When we first meet Charlie Barnes, it’s 2008, he’s in his late 60s in a Chicago suburb, and his professional life has been a series of comic failures. As an investment adviser, he’s been mediocre at best. His past moneymaking schemes have been literally toxic (a home-brew weedkiller), laughable (a combination toupee-frisbee), or lamentably unfunny (a rent-a-clown service called Clown in Your Town). Whatever creates a self-made American man, Charlie possesses none of it.
What he does have is pancreatic cancer. This should be a unifying event, a prompt for compassion, something that brings together the children and ex-wives who usually keep Charlie at arm’s length. But they’re all conspicuously absent when he calls their offices, and he’s not in possession of their home numbers. The stench of failure, of trying too hard, of past falsehoods, seems to radiate off him. Charlie’s closest companion besides his fifth wife is Jake, who’s launching his first novel amid the diagnosis. In that, Ferris suggests, son and father are compatriots in self-delusion. “Writing novels,” Charlie tells him. “All that make-believe. That’s a very silly occupation for a grown man.”
Well past the novel’s midpoint, readers might be wondering where Ferris intends to go with all this, why he’s being so hard on an ailing man drowning in flaws. Might we be in for a wryly wicked takedown of the suburban patriarch, the men who populate John Updike and Jonathan Franzen novels? That would be very of the moment — counterprogramming to Franzen’s latest family-crisis doorstopper, Crossroads — and in keeping with Ferris’ long-running effort to concoct anti-narratives and unsettle expectations.
His audacious debut, 2007’s Then We Came to the End, was a workplace satire written in the third-person plural. His next novel, 2010’s The Unnamed, followed a man who can’t stop walking, flattening conventional story arcs along the way. In 2014, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour used a high-strung dentist to comically explore serious ideas about religion, love, and family. Few mainstream American literary novelists are funnier, yet so determinedly distrustful of how novels, even funny ones, ought to work.
That’s resulted in severe misfires like the aimless The Unnamed. And though Charlie Barnes isn’t a similar failure, it demands that the reader get comfortable with a lack of clear direction. Ferris can be very funny, though often the novel’s humor pushes the edge of cruelty. While Charlie insists his clown act is solid, a parent likens him to a disease vector: “You gave them herpes,” he’s told. When one of Charlie’s good-hearted wives cheats on him, Jake notes: “The affair didn’t conform to the morals she professed or her Christian bona fides, but if it’s consistency you’re after, you’ll have to read about a different family.” Charlie’s schlemielification runs so deep in the novel it’s hard to figure if the appropriate emotional response is anger, pity, or distrust.
And once the novel is set to upend convention, it just keeps on upending. The second half, set years after Charlie’s diagnosis, finds Charlie still alive — if much slowed after invasive surgery and chemotherapy. Indeed, he’s thriving thanks to a long-running but skimpily detailed secret project he calls Chippin’ In. But even here, Ferris has trained his crosshairs on the notion of second acts in American lives. The first half of the book has been leaked to family members, who come to Jake with their own counternarratives and accusations of omissions and misrepresentations. And it’s Charlie, it seems, who has been represented the worst. Or just not turned into a punching bag in the right way. “What did you hope to do, redeem him?” a brother asks. “Now, that would be a work of fiction.”
But Ferris, via Jake, does not want to deliver merely the “small, stupid drama of a person dying of cancer, the biggest and dullest drama on earth.” Charlie’s good nature, if you can find it, is subsumed by his victimhood as a striver who should’ve known better. “Peddlers of fantasy, with their dear dead narratives, pretty much guaranteed that, until the day he got sick, he would not come into possession of a single original thought. It was all propaganda and petrified national myth.”
Exploding those myths isn’t such a bad premise for a novel. But Ferris strains to figure out how to sort through the conflicting emotions a boring suburban dad might inspire. Exploring the pathos of Charlie’s predicament would give the story emotional integrity, but that would mean taking Charlie more seriously — and make for a less funny novel. So it wobbles in registers, trying to make good on a Wallace Stevens line that Jake pointedly quotes: “The false and true are one.” Perhaps they can be, especially when family memories are involved. But like a broken family at the Thanksgiving table, it descends too easily into disarray.