A CALL TO CHARLIE BARNES by Joshua Ferris, Little, Brown, 352 pages, $ 28
On the first page of Joshua Ferris’ fourth novel, A call for Charlie Barnes, the narrator, a novelist named Jake, informs us that the following “is a true story”. Oh sure.
All fictional narrators are unreliable to some extent. But Ferris’ novel positively wallows in unreliability, particularly in how families deploy alternative facts to undermine some parents and raise others. Jake has plenty of family to work with – Charlie, his foster father, has been married five times, with various children who are difficult to keep track of. Jake’s own position in the Barnes Family Matrix is deliberately difficult to determine at first. But if you dare suspect him, he replies, “Yeah, that’s it. As if reliability no longer existed anywhere, as if it was still a thing.
When we first meet Charlie Barnes it’s in 2008, he’s in his 60s in a Chicago suburb, and his professional life has been a series of comedic failures. As an investment advisor he has been mediocre at best. His past money-making plans have been literally toxic (a homemade weedkiller), laughable (a toupee-Frisbee combination), or woefully no fun (a clown hire service called Clown in Your Town). No matter what creates an American self-made man, Charlie has none of it.
What he has is pancreatic cancer. It should be a unifying event, a call for compassion, something that brings the kids and ex-wives together who usually keep Charlie at bay. But they are all clearly absent when he calls their offices, and he does not have their home numbers. The stench of failure, of excessive effort, of the lies of the past, seems to radiate from him. Charlie’s closest companion besides his fifth wife is Jake, who launches his first novel in the midst of the diagnosis. In this, Ferris suggests, the son and father are compatriots in self-delusion. “Write novels,” Charlie told him. “All that pretense. It’s a very silly occupation for a grown man.
Long after the middle of the novel, readers might be wondering where Ferris intends to go with all of this, why he’s so hard on a sick man who is drowning in flaws. Would we be in the act of an ironic and wicked dismantling of the patriarch of the suburbs, the men who inhabit the novels of John Updike and Jonathan Franzen? That would be right now – counter-program Franzen’s last door stop in the event of a family crisis, crossroads – and in keeping with Ferris’ long-standing efforts to concoct anti-narratives and disrupt expectations.
His daring debut, 2007’s Then we came to the end, was a working satire written in the third person plural. Her next novel, 2010’s The Unnamed, followed a man who can’t stop walking, flattening conventional story arcs along the way. In 2014, Go back to a decent hour used a nervous dentist to comically explore serious ideas about religion, love, and family. Few mainstream American literary novelists are funnier, yet they are so resolutely suspicious of how even funny novels should work.
This resulted in serious hiccups like the aimless The Unnamed. And yet Charlie barnes is not a similar failure, it requires the reader to feel comfortable with a lack of clear direction. Ferris can be very funny, although often the humor of the novel pushes the edge of cruelty. While Charlie insists that his clown act is solid, one parent compares him to a disease carrier: “You gave them herpes,” he tells her. When one of Charlie’s kind-hearted wives cheats on him, Jake notes: different family. Charlie’s schlemielification runs so deep in the novel that it’s unclear whether the appropriate emotional response is anger, pity, or mistrust.
And once the novel is ready to upset convention, it continues to upset. The second half, which takes place years after Charlie’s diagnosis, finds Charlie still alive – though he’s slowed down a lot after invasive surgery and chemotherapy. Indeed, he thrives on a long-standing but little-detailed secret project he calls Chippin ‘In. But even here, Ferris has trained his reticule 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 counter-narratives and accusations of omissions and misrepresentation. And it is Charlie, it seems, who has been represented the most. Or just not turned into a punching bag the right way. “What were you hoping to do, redeem it?” asks a brother. “Now that would be a work of fiction. “
But Ferris, via Jake, doesn’t want to just deliver the “stupid little drama of a person dying of cancer, the biggest, most boring drama on the planet.” Charlie’s good nature, if you can find it, is subsumed by his victimized status as a wrestler who should have known better. “The fancy peddlers, with their dear dead tales, pretty much guaranteed that until one day he fell ill, he wouldn’t come into possession of a single original thought. It was all propaganda and a petrified national myth.
Shattering these myths is not such a bad premise for a novel. But Ferris struggles to find a way to unravel any conflicting emotions that a boring suburban dad might inspire. Exploring the pathos of Charlie’s predicament would give the story emotional integrity, but it would mean taking Charlie more seriously – and making it a less funny novel. So he wobbles through the books, trying to fix a Wallace Stevens line that Jake pointedly quotes: “The false and the true are one.” Maybe they can be, especially when family memories are involved. But like a broken family at the Thanksgiving table, it too easily sinks into disarray.