The realist suburban novel seems as cemented in contemporary literature as the eye-rolling it often inspires.
BY LIZ COOK
The Kansas City Star
Readers are all too familiar with the tropes. Middle-aged men with high-powered careers try to relive an imaginary dream of youth by shrugging off family responsibilities and leering at college coeds out the windows of flashy, impractical cars. Couples who seem to have it all embark on converging paths of self-destruction and self-pity.
Readers bored by the manufactured problems of wealthy suburbanites will nevertheless want to make an exception for Jonathan Dees sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons. Its a complex and self-aware portrait of a New York family more interested in accepting blame than avoiding it.
Dee, whose novel The Privileges was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, skillfully evades the traps of the genre while winking at them. A Thousand Pardons is not about a marriages destruction so much as what happens after the glamour of that destruction fades.
Helen and Ben Armstead, a couple from the sleepy fictional suburb of Rensselaer Valley, split up in the first 20 pages, and Ben, a successful Manhattan lawyer, senses himself falling head-first into a bundle of midlife crisis clichés. He seemed to have decided, Dee writes, that the only way to go out was to go out as a fool, an antagonist, exciting the crowds derision.
Ben goes on to do just that: He tries (and fails) to have an affair with a hot, young intern at his firm. He gets in a fistfight with a man half his age, then drives home drunk on mid-shelf bourbon and passes out behind the wheel. In an early jaunt with his wife to a couples therapist he asks, Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified?
When the intern presses sexual assault charges, the couples assets are frozen, and Bens now-ex-wife, Helen, desperately searches for another source of income to support their adopted daughter, Sara, a gifted teen fraught with troubles of her own. Helen ships out her thin resume and lands a job at a PR firm, despite having no experience or training in public relations. She quickly discovers, however, that she has a very specific and highly relevant talent: convincing powerful men to apologize.
Its a slick reversal on Dees part: rejecting her husbands career in advising clients to deny guilt, Helen makes hers in forcing them to admit it, imagining herself delivering a kind of common-sense rebuke not just to her ex-husband and his lawyer but to legal minds everywhere.
Helens surprising aptitude and self-effacing humor make her a character well worth rooting for. Her sections of the novel are refreshingly and compassionately human, allowing Dee to blend moments of cynical humor at the expense of misbehaving politicians and businessmen with serious, compelling reflections on accountability and authenticity.
Dee explores these issues most successfully in Hamilton Barth, a film actor tired of the artifice of celebrity who hires Helen after a potentially career-destroying mistake. As Helen tries to manage the scandal, however, Barth embraces it, finding an opportunity to stretch out of the rigid and stifling boundaries of his public image.
The parallel between Barth and Helens husband, Ben, isnt particularly subtle. Its hard to get outside yourself, Ben says early in the novel, in a flash of insight Barth echoes later: Its hard to get outside the boundaries of who you are the pressure just builds up until theres some kind of combustion, I guess, and if it doesnt kill you then maybe it throws you clear of everything, of who you are.
Helen, for her part, remains skeptical about the way the pair romanticizes destructive behavior, a critical voice the novel sorely needs. But Dees characters, each with their own flaws and complexities, seem to stumble upon a kind of balance by the novels end, tearing down lives theyve outgrown while facing the ugly consequences head-on. The result is a genuine and deeply funny look into the superficiality of image and our cultural preoccupation with guilt and blame.
So youre just going to live there like nothing happened? Helen asks, when her husband moves back into the familys former suburban home.
No, he says, I am going to live here like everything happened.
Liz Cook is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who is interning this semester at The Star. Reach her at email@example.com.