A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris: A review

 

It's hard to get a handle on Charlie Barnes at first. His story is narrated by his son, Jake Barnes. Jake is a novelist and he tells the story not in a linear fashion but as a series of zigzags through time. Each new direction takes us to another aspect of Charlie's life. Even so, all those different aspects don't necessarily shed too much light on who exactly he is. They are often contradictory and lead to questions rather than answers.

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

Comments

  1. New author to me as well. Thanks for the update.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think I have known people like that!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think we may have all known a Charlie at one time or another.

      Delete
  3. The only book I've read by this author is Then We Came to the End, a book told in plural first person, the only book I can remember reading that was told in plural first person. It was surprising and completely readable.

    This one sounds intriguing, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have to read that. Evidently that is his most acclaimed book.

      Delete
  4. I enjoyed this one audio - oddly, the (2) parts: Farce and Fiction seems unfamiliar. Although I love audio, I do think things are missed along the way - the things the eye would have noticed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do prefer actual print. For me, audio is just for traveling or in the event that I can't use my hands for some reason.

      Delete
  5. Farce and Fiction and a zig-zagging timeline...sounds like a crazy kind of read, but a fun one, too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'll also recommend Then We Came To The End--the only one of his I've read--an office novel, I thought it was a lot of fun. It's first person plural, which is odd, but the plural keeps shrinking as people get fired or quit. This sounds pretty good--I'll have to check it out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll definitely have to read some of his other books. He's a very creative and original writer.

      Delete
  7. This sounds like a good read. I like that it's split into two sections.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I liked this novel too. Ha, I had to laugh at Steady Boy and his troubles. He made me laugh. Oh my, the calls at the beginning where he leaves msgs with the receptionists for his kids about his so-called cancer was pretty priceless. And like you, this novel was my first of Ferris's novels .... but now I'd like to read more of his. He is a clever and witty guy.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He's such a hypochondriac and so silly about it. He is a wonderfully described character.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Poetry Sunday: Hymn for the Hurting by Amanda Gorman

Open Season (Joe Pickett #1) by C.J. Box - A review

Poetry Sunday: Don't Hesitate by Mary Oliver