This muddled, overcrowded mess of a story
Jonathan Dee's previous novel, The Privileges, was Pulitzer nominated, so one expected high standards from his new work, A Thousand Pardons. It begins with New Yorkers Helen and Ben Armistead about to divorce. Ben, an attorney, is suffering a putative midlife crisis and claims his wife is boring. In his disturbed state he commits a sexual transgression with a too-knowing intern, who ironically takes legal action against him. Later, he drunkenly crashes his car, and is thus disgraced and after a short imprisonment, where we are supposed to believe he has mended his ways, he seeks forgiveness from his wife. Helen, meanwhile, who hadn't worked outside the home for 14 years, in order to provide for their adopted daughter, secures a job in a PR firm in which she demonstrates a sudden miraculous talent for crisis management. Her method of getting erring clients to openly apologise for their wrong-doing parallels her own personal story with Ben.
Initially, it is difficult to understand whose story this is. It starts out as Ben's and, when he disappears for a large section, it becomes Helen's story, and then it shifts to their teenage daughter Sara and her romance with the undesirable Cutter. The author also introduces a backstory about a movie star, Hamilton Barth, a childhood friend of Helen's whose life of celebrity and drunkenness blurs with her husband's as both men seek anonymity, if for different reasons. The novel's constant shifting of POV is jarring and disconcerting, particularly in such a short work, and fails to anchor the story, thus preventing the reader from getting involved with any of the characters in a meaningful way.
While the novel is good on small town satire in the character of Helen's first PR employer, Aaron Harvey as the incompetent down-at-heel businessman, he is just another character all too fleetingly delineated and conveniently killed off in the early part of the book. There are too many insubstantial types such as Mona and Nevaeh, the rather idle secretaries who provide mere patter for Helen in Harvey's PR firm and who could be reduced to one character or eliminated altogether; and Helen's delayed and unresolved work for the Catholic Church, with its sex scandals, is more sensational than relevant and peripheral to the main thrust of the narrative, which ultimately is the seeking of forgiveness in a marriage.
There is some inspired writing with original turns of phrase: "the solipsism of his depression" referring to Ben; "sad sacks whoring out their dignity on reality TV" on the image question; a graphic description of the exhausted Helen after work, falling asleep in front of the TV where her chin would "sink down toward her chest, snap up suddenly, and then sink again for good".
In many cases, however, the prose is pedestrian and could have done with more attention. There are many repetitions. When Sara "shrugged", the same word is repeated two lines later, the author lazily accepting the repetition rather than using a synonym.
Also the narrator intervenes into the voices of the characters and, while he is psychologically insightful into teenager Sara in her hot and cold relationship with her parents, one feels all too often the authorial presence dominating. When Sara closed her eyes "not because she was upset but just to try to get her thoughts in order", one senses the thought and action of an older person here, in the same way as her boyfriend Cutter used adult words such as "deracinated" unconvincingly.
Finally, the reader is left to ponder, did this book need to be written or is it just one of hundreds of bland, semi-literary novels easily forgotten?
James Lawless' latest novel is 'Knowing Women'. www.jameslawless.net