About a third of the way through Joshua Ferris’s new and most autobiographical novel “A Calling for Charlie Barnes,” the narrator addresses the reader regarding the book’s eponymous subject: “I hate to think that you might be losing patience with him because he is failing his best self, or makes a poor ideal for mankind, or simply isn’t worth your time and attention.” I was indeed thinking this about Charlie Barnes, but Ferris writes with an exuberant style that propels the reader, regardless of the plot. The narrator is Charlie’s son Jake (his name a nod to Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”), who claims he’s writing an accurate account of his father’s life, “sticking to the facts.” But in attempting to do so, he finds that facts often don’t reflect people’s version of reality.
When we first meet Charlie Barnes, it’s 2008, and the stock market is crashing. He’s 68, thinks he’s dying of cancer, and lives with his fifth wife in Danville, Illinois, where Ferris is from; in an interview with Publishers Weekly, Ferris said he based Charlie Barnes’s biography on that of his own father, who died of cancer in 2014. Yet initially the book seems mostly a means of grinding axes against the financial industry. Charlie once worked for Bear Stearns, which is currently going under, but left fifteen years earlier to create his own financial planning agency, one that charges an annual fee to his retiree clients rather than commissions. He spent his life honestly pursuing wealth, yet now realizes “at the eleventh hour that it was nothing but a scam. The books were cooked.” He’s lost faith in finance, capitalism, and the American Dream. In the “wake of a massive, historic, global scam,” Charlie takes “a clear-eyed sober look at the pretty fictions” he’s lived his life in pursuit of, thinking they were “real and fair and possible.” And he realizes he’s wasted his life. He’s had many jobs, but he’s never found his calling.
From the fraudulence of the financial system, Ferris subtly pivots, and as he further introduces us to Charlie’s children, we learn they think their father is a fraud himself. Charlie was a half-assed dreamer, a failed serial-entrepreneur, devising one business idea after another, abandoning each when it was clear the idea was either dumb or too difficult. He was a fraud to his wives, on whom he cheated and left when another came along. And he’s conned his children, lying to them so often they don’t even believe he has cancer. That is, he followed his greed and his lust, often at the expense of his honor — and yet he considers himself an honorable man. And here’s where things get interesting, as Ferris circles around what the book is really about: that “every story we tell ourselves is some version of make-believe.”
The fact is that people don’t like the truth — especially when it concerns themselves. Jake learns this when, in 2016, a draft of his book about Charlie Barnes circulates within the family. No one likes how they’re portrayed during that rough time of 2008. They accuse Jake of having painted a “warped” picture that is “riddled with error.” Why? Partly because he did — he admits he’s consolidated two daughters into one for narrative simplicity, for example — but also because no one wants to be pegged. And yet that’s exactly what happens in literature and photography; a person is who they are depicted to be, forever. Facts pin us, permanently. Yet not only do people change, they want to change. In our minds, we live fictional versions of ourselves.
Ferris, whose earlier books also flirted with the experimental, flips the narrative on its head in the book’s fourth and final part. Did Barnes beat his cancer, have a successful business idea, live a rich, humble, and happy life as a changed man, as we see he did in part three? Or did he die soon after his diagnosis? Did his children become their best selves, or linger as self-satisfied schmucks? Is Jake even Charlie’s son at all? “Who are you again?” his supposed relatives ask. “Why are you here?” If we’re not confused by the end, we’re resentful at being manipulated — and perhaps for reading about someone who wasn’t worth our time and attention. But I worry that Ferris is less concerned with his narrative than his idea, which, admittedly, is an incisive critique of contemporary culture.
At one point, Charlie insults Jake’s profession, saying that writing novels is “a very silly occupation for a grown man.” Understandably, Jake takes offense and monologues at the obliviousness of Charlie’s perception of fiction: “He could treat real life as a fiction, wish away this and will that into existence, manipulate the truth and toy with people’s feelings, leave off the old dead drafts and start over with a new cast of characters whenever the whim struck.” Fiction, in this sense, is simply a denial of reality. It’s a degraded form of the concept, but, as we see in contemporary society, it’s wildly popular. To assert facts that don’t exist, to deny facts that do, to create an identity around promoting a falsehood — this is all common currency in our cultural market.
Still, it’s a mistake to assert that people who lie or are delusional are engaging in fiction. Because as “A Calling for Charlie Barnes” shows, fiction is an art form deliberately used to get to a deeper truth than fact. It’s not a denial of reality, but a more serious journey into it.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is currently working on a book about antisemitism.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes
By Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown, 352, $28