As in “Law & Order,” it’s not good to be rich in a Jonathan Dee novel.
You either wind up dead, or plastered all over the cover of the New York Post, or drawn into a strange relationship that tests the boundaries of society. The rich, Dee seems to believe, aren’t just different from you and me. They’re a lot worse.
And yet in “A Thousand Pardons,” his hugely enjoyable new novel, they get a pass. Eventually. Just after the book opens, Ben Armstead hits the Dee trifecta. In the wake of a highly ill-advised non-affair with a junior associate at his law firm, his career implodes and his wife leaves him. Ben has become so untouchable the only man who will defend him in court works above a hardware store.
It’s a long way down for an Audi-driving senior partner at a Manhattan law firm. Dee scripts the fall gorgeously, with all the attendant humiliations and collateral damage at home. Ben’s wife, Helen, is furious and mortified; his 12-year-old daughter, Sara, is simply baffled. Ben’s last free act was to try to drive home drunk, and for that he gets sentenced to 30 days in prison.
Dee is a snappy, cinematic writer, and it’s very hard not to inhale this section of the novel in one greedy sitting. Jesus, powerful men can be stupid. At this point, however, Dee has his readers where he wants us: We are colluders in the scandal. We are watching a train wreck and enjoying it.
Ironically, Ben’s wife picks herself back up by going into scandal management. She doesn’t plan it this way. The only job she can find is at a low-budget PR firm, two bills shy of bankruptcy. She turns their fortunes around by leaping in when a Chinese restaurant owner gets picketed for labor infractions. “[H]ere’s what we do,” she says shocking both her new employer and the client. “We apologize.”
One crisis at a time, Helen evolves into the guru of public apology, and “A Thousand Pardons” becomes a tale about guilt, real and displaced, and the powerful urges society has to both assign and expiate it publicly. It’s not a subtle book, but it is a good one.
The story moves easily between private and public events. In doing this Dee creates a kind of weather system that breathes in bad behavior and spits out a gentle rain of forgiveness.
Dee writes fabulous, Japanese-street tidy sentences. This gives him an almost spooky access to the inner lives of his characters. Writing in a close third person, the novel darts from Ben’s perspective, as he leaves prison in shame, to Helen’s, as she begins climbing the ladder of an industry that would be nowhere if people and institutions weren’t so incapable of dealing with shame.
If you’ve ever considered a career in the flack-hack game read this book first. Dee depicts this world’s bloviation and rage with precision: the morning meetings and their low bar for creativity, the deep sexism of who gets promoted at the top, the gym rats who bring their quad shots to the desk before setting about destroying investigative journalism in the name of an idiot’s reputation.
As gimlet-eyed as the novel is about the fame game and how it is perpetuated, it is at its best, as was Dee’s last, “The Privileges,” on the tacit bargains of family life. Helen worries, endlessly, that she will mess up as a single mother. Sara forgives her neglect by sparing Helen the dirty details of the risky affair she enters with a rich African-American teenager with a chip on his shoulder.
Ben, still smarting from how bad he has screwed up, eventually becomes the repository for that information.
In “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen satirized the fallacy we could ever start families to erase the mistakes of our upbringings. “A Thousand Pardons,” though not a satire, turns its cold glare on the idea that anyone, really, can start over. The ties that bind may be loose at the start of this novel. Ben and Helen are in counseling and their daughter just simply wants to avoid them. Once chaos hits though, they proceed to get stronger.
Dee has touched on many of these themes in his previous books.
“A Thousand Pardons” moves fast. It’s a mere 200 or so pages, and it packs a lot of turns of fate within there, and many points of view.
Amazingly, the action never becomes choppy or predictable. But characterizations suffer, to some degree, as they must when a writer has chosen momentum and pace over depth.
In any other writer this would be a mistake, but Dee’s previous work — so exquisitely written — occasionally suffered from a portentousness born out of righteousness. The framework in books like “Palladio” and “The Lover of History” feels more important than what’s inside the picture.
That is not the case with “A Thousand Pardons.” There is a heat haze of real emotion rising off this book. It surges with the paranoia of the jilted in Helen’s sections, eddies in self-pity in Ben’s passages.
Their marriage, especially when it is completely broken, feels as if it has a damaged, beating heart.
And so, in spite of Ben’s mistake, and the huge price he pays for it, “A Thousand Pardons” will ask its big question to the reader, not to its characters: Is there anything unforgivable? Can you forgive Ben, or men like him? Do they deserve a second chance? As with “A Thousand and One Nights,” this tale only stops when the reader has called mercy.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of “The Tyranny of E-mail.’’