Every family is a group of unreliable narrators. 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 replaces fact in our minds seamlessly and subconsciously.
Or as the narrator of Joshua Ferris' dazzling new novel puts it: "Every story we tell ourselves is some version of make-believe."
There's no shortage of make-believe in “A Calling for Charlie Barnes,” Ferris' fifth — and best — book. The titular character is an investment adviser living in suburban Chicago who manages funds for retirees. He's also, the narrator explains, "a big fat fraud," a half-assed dreamer whose business schemes never come to fruition. "He was born a nobody and that's how he would die," the narrator writes, trying to inhabit the mind of the man in his 68th year and on his fifth marriage.
The narrator, Jake Barnes (the Hemingway shoutout is intentional), has reason to believe he knows what's going on in Charlie's brain: He's Charlie's son, and his father has asked him to tell his life story in book form, as truthfully as possible. Jake hopes to redeem his father; if Charlie is a Willy Loman on Lake Michigan, then Jake's book is an "attention must be paid" moment.
Ferris' novel starts off with more bad news for Charlie: He's been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the "big kahuna" of cancers, and immediately calls his family members, friends and enemies to tell them the news. He hopes to reconcile with his other children, Jerry, a stoner with an abiding interest in Eastern religion and not much else, and Marcy, a prickly woman with "funny ideas about 9/11 and fluoride." Both of them don't hate Charlie exactly, but — well, honestly, they kind of hate him.
The would-be reconciliations don't go as planned, particularly when Charlie is forced to admit that (a) the person who diagnosed him was, in fact, himself, after doom-scrolling the Internet, and (b) his diagnosis was not, in fact, correct. Charlie is relieved he's getting a second chance at life — kind of: "A deadly cancer like that will put things in perspective and everyone in their place. Now he had to go back to being just another everyday schlub paying down debts from a basement office. Who cared about that guy?"
Jake tells the story of his father's attempts to reconnect with his children, intercut with the story of his life, a Midwesterner who never could manage to stay in one job — or with one wife — for long. (His nickname, given with a heavy dose of irony, is "Steady Boy.") His siblings don't understand his need to redeem his father, "a fairly standard midcentury model, Updikean in his defects and indulgences," and they're unwilling to give the man a second chance, despite Jake's repeated pleas: "We are here, you idiots, to forgive one another," he says, though not out loud.
And then things take a series of left turns. In the ingeniously structured last third of the book, the narrative starts to go off the rails, leading the reader to question whether anything that came before was actually true. And you can't say Jake didn't warn us — fairly early in the book, he writes, "Now, I know what you're thinking. Jake Barnes has played his hand. He sides with Charlie and can't be trusted. He's unreliable. Yeah, right. Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that's still a thing."
“A Calling for Charlie Barnes” wears its metafictional heart on its sleeve, but as smart as it is, Ferris never shows any signs of falling in love with his own cleverness. Literary experiments without warmth tend to fall flat for most readers, but Ferris' novel is — remarkably, given its flawed subject — full of heart. When it comes to business, Charlie can't win for losing, but he's a steadfastly lovable character, and when he's hurting, the reader's heart breaks. In one scene, Charlie sneaks away in Jake's rental car, trying to connect with uninterested strangers — it's a perfect portrayal of the man's pain, sadness and desperation.
In his previous works, Ferris has proved that he's one of the best American authors of comic fiction working today. His humor is on full display with “A Calling for Charlie Barnes” but so are his intelligence and compassion. It's a masterpiece that shines a revealing light on both family and fiction itself. As Jake reflects: "Real life makes for good novels because it's lived as a bunch of lies, and because fictions of one kind or another are the only things worth living for."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.