Sunday, August 7

A Review of Calling for Charlie Barnes: The Tragicomedy of the American Dream | Fiction

“TOAttention should be paid. “The featured line at Arthur Miller’s Death of a seller – Linda Loman’s harrowing warning that her husband’s suffering deserves the dignity of being noticed appears to be an invisible epigraph in Joshua Ferris’ tragicomic fourth novel. The incumbent Charlie Barnes is, like Willy Loman, what the last president of the United States would have identified as a loser; a man in his later years who has pursued the so-called American Dream and ended up suffocating on exhaust fumes. When we meet him, it is 2008 and he is in his “worn and tired house” in a nasty Chicago suburb. You have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and you think you only have a few weeks to live. Excited, in his carefree way, with the opportunity to demand that others sympathize with him as much as he sympathizes with himself, he calls out old business associates to rub his diagnosis in their faces, and calls out his scattered bloodline. of semi-separated children demanding that they visit him. Then she discovers that she doesn’t have pancreatic cancer after all. He can’t even get his final act right.

    A call for Charlie Barnes

Unlike Willy Loman, Charlie – sarcastically nicknamed “Steady Boy” – is a creature of the era of entrepreneurship; not a career-long wage slave, but someone who has gone into debt to pursue chimera after chimera. He was hoping to revolutionize asset management for seniors and he went bankrupt. There was a proprietary herbicide called “Endopalm-T,” whose excellent toxicity was not limited to its effect on plants; a doomed entertainment franchise called “Clown In Your Town”; a novel Frisbee in the form of a flying toupee called “Doolander”, which did not land with the public.

He had spent half his life preparing the next big thing. It never worked. Steady Boy, in fact, had no difficulty keeping a job. He never wanted to be a fool, an idiot or a mid-level this or that. Like anyone, he hoped to make a killing, to become a household name, to live forever. Well, now I wouldn’t. That was a done deal.

We have to stop calling him Steady Boy.

However, in all these schemes there was something not only selfish or acquisitive, but a thread of utopia. The Doolander was inspired by the joy of a spontaneous toupee accident “shortly after Nixon’s second inauguration”; in financial services, he wanted to enrich himself by offering the customer a fairer deal. But his personal disappointment has turned over the years to moral outrage. As the unfolding financial crisis exposes Wall Street’s chiselling and fraud, he criticizes the rottenness of the entire system. This is not an overtly political novel, or a novel about the state of the nation, it is a family story, but the story is its background music.

Now here is Charlie, beyond the era of new beginnings, living in Palookaville with his basement cluttered with bundles of long-gone business marketing materials. His personal life is also a mess. His career has been shaped not only by the vain dream of coast-to-coast success, but also by, at least in youth, a romantic nature and uncontrollable libido. His fifth marriage is happy. His wife, Barbara, is dedicated to him; but her children from her previous marriages hate her (or, at least, transfer their anger towards him in disdain for her) and he is unable to bring them together.

What gives this novel its special cuteness and twist, and then provides a series of metafictional surprises that throw rugs, is its framing. We are reading what they tell us (sending all kinds of red flags) is the “strictly factual” account of Charlie’s life, narrated by his youngest son, Jake, a successful novelist who boasts of staying with Ian McEwan in the Cotswolds. As Jake languidly observes, his father has never seen the meaning of his fiction writing career; Yet the techniques of fiction are everywhere in the way Charlie Barnes shaped his own life.

Jake adores his father: he clearly sees him with all his flaws and idiosyncrasies, or it seems, but he adores him anyway. Charlie may be a fraud, a fool, a cheating husband, and a failure, but he is a decent human being. This novel is funny: Ferris has a lovely comic timing and a great way with the sheer silliness of a family’s mental and physical trinkets, and very moving. Sometimes he leans toward outright sentimentality, only for that to emerge as part of the book’s design; a weakness not of Ferris but of Jake Barnes. This is the story of a disappointed idealist told by another, an unreliable storyteller described by another, and it is animated by filial love. Attention is being paid.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a Viking publication (£ 16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, purchase a copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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