A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris review – the man and the myth

Any novelist is fiercely impelled to give their story a shape, to mould a satisfying journey along which ends are tied and consequences paid out. And yet part of the genius of this shape-shifting fourth novel from the Booker-shortlisted Ferris is that – just like his protagonist Charlie Barnes’s life – it’s a sprawling, confounding mess.

Five wives, four children, at least 40 jobs, constant debt, no end of wash-outs: you will know him by his trail of bankruptcies. And yet Charlie still believes in himself and, against all the odds, he believes in his next big thing. Because, yes, Charlie is another of those American dreamers, obsessed with becoming a self-made man rather than just a man, convinced that his every crazy new scheme is the one that will, this time, make him crazy rich.

But when we meet Charlie, it’s 2008 and he’s awaiting test results that will confirm his pancreatic cancer. In his basement office on Rust Road, he’s going through his Rolodex – yes, that’s how well things have been going for Charlie – and calling old contacts, both loved and loathed. He gets through to none of them but that doesn’t stop him off-loading (“People with pancreatic cancer go to their graves as if shot out of a cannon… It’s like priority mail”) on to whoever is unlucky enough to answer the phone.

In between these bouts of histrionic message-leaving, we shoot hither and yon through the high and lows (mostly the latter) of his 69 years: the abandoned wives, the abandoned (though occasionally recovered) offspring, and the many, many failed business ventures. The latter probably peaks with his patenting of The Doolander, a Frisbee designed to look identical to a toupee: “The World’s First Flying Haircut™”. What’s not to like?

From Willy Loman to Rabbit Angstrom to The Music Man, American literature is packed with these queasily charismatic monsters. They’ll tell you they’re doing it for the family, for human betterment, for America, but in truth it’s the self-regard, the craving for limelight, that drives them. That and the sex – because of course, like so many before him, Charlie’s libido is the source of much of the chaos. Regardless, these men have become a building block of America’s mythology, maybe because their own myth-making is so mesmeric.

But who exactly is telling Charlie’s myth? Someone is clearly organising this material for us, sporadically breaking cover from behind mere authorial narration. Gradually he emerges: it’s one of Charlie’s sons, Jake, already a successful novelist – he appears on Conan, hangs out with the McEwans in the Cotswolds. In spite of this, his father (no stranger to invention himself) insists it’s a silly way for a grownup to make a living.

And with that point of view established, the prose now shifts beautifully from “they” to “us” as Jake allows himself more presence in the story. But the reader starts to clock certain oddities: the first wife is named Sue Starter, the second Barbara LeFeurst, the third – the only one to keep him on track – is Charley Proffit, and the latest wife, another Barbara, is Barbara Ledeux.

All of which provides a slow-burning clue as to how the novel might flip for the final third. And when it does, it’s hard not to catch your breath in admiration. Because in Ferris’s admirably risk-taking hands, this novel becomes so much more than simply another story of failed American dreams. Ferris has made himself into the leading writer of the American workplace: from the copywriters shuffling patiently towards redundancy in Then We Came to the End, to the baffled dentist of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. He understands both its absurdities (and this is another very funny book) and its rewards, but most of all he understands how it shapes modern America.

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