The titular antihero of Joshua Ferris’s fourth novel has lived a peripatetic existence. A college dropout, he spent many years bouncing between various manual occupations – his inability to hold down a job earned him the ironic nickname ‘Steady Boy’ – before trying his luck as an entrepreneur, throwing himself into ‘hook-a-duck schemes, napkin-doodled empires and fever dreams full of franchises’. After numerous failed ventures – peddling, among other things, a dodgy weedkiller, a fleet of clowns and a novelty toupee – he had stints in social work and insurance, and eventually became a stockbroker. When we first meet him, aged sixty-eight, he is on his fifth wife and has just received a cancer diagnosis. Reflecting ruefully on his dilettantish ways, he deems himself ‘a big fat failure in life’ and vows to become a better man if he survives the illness: ‘I was real once. I could be real again.’
A Calling for Charlie Barnes is an account of one man’s life as narrated by his adopted son, Jake, who adores him despite his flaws. The novel begins in 2008, the year of the financial crash. Charlie was hitherto ‘a fairly standard midcentury model … besotted by the American dream’, but has latterly come to realise that the capitalist game was rigged all along. Jake suspects his father’s lack of worldly success might also be attributable to ‘his preoccupation with other things, like his hard-ons, the sports page, trips to the mall, workday matinees, and afternoon naps’. We are given to understand, in short, that he lacks the killer instinct.
A novelist by profession, Jake assures us his warts-and-all depiction is true to life – ‘I promised the old man to tell it straight … to stick to the facts’ – but he fears his candour might not go down well:
He would hate this. Every intimate detail deprives him of what he firmly believed a man needs most: the projection of a successful image … Get out of here with your goddamn realism, you puncturing little prick! You would tell them about my falsies, and my falling out of college? Why not strip me naked on Main Street, USA, and flog me up and down the street, you fuck?
Ferris’s prose is lively and engaging, and he has a sitcom writer’s ear for dialogue. Much of the humour riffs on the selective myopia that sustains the petty squabbles, jealousies and recriminations of family life. In this exchange, Charlie, who has always looked askance at his son’s metier, reminisces about the emergence of Jake’s precocious literary talent:
‘How old were you when you first read Hemingway?’
‘It was Dostoyevsky,’ I said, ‘and I was twelve.’
‘Twelve years old and reading Hemingway.’
Late in the novel, things take a metafictional turn when Jake’s work in progress – the book we’ve been reading – falls into the hands of various family members, who are outraged at how they’ve been represented on the page. These include his brother, Jerry, a slacker who spends his days ‘diagnosing the power structures of neoliberalism via YouTube while reading deeply in his Eastern religion. The result was the radicalizing of a distinctly American monk: dropped out, plugged in, metaphysically enlightened but politically enraged.’ Charlie’s wife, Barbara, speaks for everyone who has ever been traduced in fiction when she asks Jake: ‘Just who the fuck do you think you are?’
As Ferris revealed in an interview with Publishers Weekly, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is heavily autobiographical, its central character inspired by his own late father. The narrator’s anxious grappling with the slippery ethics of life-writing serves as a built-in disclaimer: ‘when we consider the necessarily curated nature of any narrated life … we are forced to conclude that every history … is a fiction of a sort.’ In a recent article for the financial magazine Wealthsimple, Ferris recalled how, when his parents divorced in the mid-1980s, his mother impressed upon him that ‘Father was a dreamer, perhaps even a con man. He spurned responsibility, preferring the get-rich-quick scheme to the honest day’s labour.’ While this fictionalised account doesn’t entirely contradict that appraisal, it is nonetheless a sympathetic rendering, suffused with filial affection.
The legacy of the Reagan administration, which valorised individualism and decimated the welfare state, looms large in this morality tale. In one particularly poignant scene, an emotional Charlie revisits the site of Old Poor Farm, where he and his third wife had been social workers in the 1970s, to find that the place has been knocked down and replaced by a Walmart – a heavy-handed metaphor, perhaps, but eminently plausible: ‘No trace of it remained: no more do-gooders in wool suits … the social contract was over.’
For all its political resonances, it is the human comedy that keeps the novel ticking over. The blend of farce and pathos makes for an enjoyable and at times moving read. This tragicomic portrait of a hapless wheeler-dealer skewers a culture’s obsession with striving and self-optimisation: at what point do perseverance, determination and can-do spirit lapse into delusion? If God, as they say, loves a trier, then America sure as hell loves a chancer. Here is the sexagenarian Charlie, pumping himself up, hoping and scheming against the odds: ‘From a Westville shanty to the Chicago suburbs in a single lifetime. Not too shabby for a college dropout. And there was still time, still time.’