A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris: A review
When we meet him, he is 68 years old. In those eventful years, he has married five times, fathered assorted children, and held at least 40 different jobs. Each new job or situation seems to reveal a different personality. He's had numerous failures and has "started over" many times. He is described at one point as "effectively insane since about 1960." At different points in his life, he's been a hippie and a financier. Once he even worked in social services. His financier period coincided with the 2008 financial crash. It ruined Charlie and many of his clients. What is clear from the story the son tells is that his father is steeped in cynicism.
He is also a fabulist. He makes things up and he begins to believe his own stories. He seems to have difficulty discerning fact from fiction. When we first meet him, he has just discovered that he has pancreatic cancer. He seems delighted by the fact. Soon he is calling everyone who ever treated him badly and relating his sad news, hoping to make them all sorry. But then we learn that he's not really sick at all. It was all his own diagnosis. He's an unreliable narrator of his own life.
Unreliable, yes, but quite funny. The biography of Charlie is split into two sections, one called "Farce" and one called "Fiction." Both live up to their titles but both are full of satire and never serious. In fact, the narrative is often hilarious and keeps us guessing throughout. What outrageous thing will "Steady Boy" do next? Steady Boy was Charlie's nickname and no nickname was ever less apt! Steady he never was.
This was Joshua Ferris's fifth book. I had never read any of the earlier ones, one of which, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, was a Booker Prize finalist. So his books have been well-known among critics but apparently have never reached wide readership. This one is said to be more accessible than the earlier ones. It is loosely based on his father who died in 2014 and there is real feeling behind his prose. One senses that the story does contain real people and that there have been real wounds experienced by some of those people. We can never really feel comfortable that we know where this story is headed. But, never mind. Just relax and enjoy the ride. We may not be able to see where we are going but the author never loses sight of his objective.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars