Sean and Art don’t know each other, but the two 40-something sad sacks have a lot in common: underemployment, loneliness, the nagging sense of opportunities missed. Each is a father — Sean’s smart, responsible son, Conner, shines as his one success, while Art barely knows his daughter, Linnea, until she arrives to live with him after a deadly shooting at her Midwestern high school.
Set amid San Francisco’s northern suburbs, “The Humanity Project,” the prolific Jean Thompson’s sixth novel, weaves a rich, moving story of parents and children, money and poverty, virtue and evil.
Even before being confronted with sullen, wounded Linnea, Art has proven himself a fumbler, a serial quitter (graduate school, various jobs, women), and inveterate dabbler, “aware,” Thompson writes, “that there were ridiculous aspects of his life.” He can’t parse his daughter’s strangeness — “either a harmless teenage thing, or else an announcement of mental illness” — but here his low expectations come in handy; as long as she’s still alive, he feels he’s doing an OK job.
Sean, injured in a car crash and addicted to pain pills, senses he’s “losing altitude little by little,” unable to claw back from a lousy economy and mountainous medical bills. A third unmoored soul is Art’s neighbor Christie, a nurse whose work with a wealthy widow, the slightly batty Mrs. Foster, leads to her being asked to run Foster’s new charity, dubbed the Humanity Project.
What does it mean to be good? Is it possible to nudge, encourage, or train people to be better? Christie isn’t so sure, but over time she launches the Humanity Project, staffing it as Mrs. Foster asked, with “the otherwise unemployable: the drug-addled, the belligerently untrained, the mildly nuts.” In a book full of lovable losers, Christie is something else entirely: competent but insecure, always seeking “the bright edge of her finer self.” Over the weekend of the foundation’s first big event — a conference on goodness and economics, keynoted by a lecherous, best-selling advice-book author — all the strands of Thompson’s interlocking story lines come together. With the exception of a slightly too coincidental back story involving a school shooter and his mother, Thompson manages this complicated choreography masterfully.
Thompson has a keen eye (and nose) for eccentricity and its accouterments: Mrs. Foster’s nautical-themed suit makes her “look like a captain in some small, loopy navy,” and one of Marin’s horde of aging former hippies gives off “a smell that was part ashtray, part incense, part cat.” This kind of sociological satire can lapse all too easily into caricature, a danger Thompson mostly avoids — her sympathy for her struggling characters is too strong, as is her interest in the larger drama they figure in. “[A]nyone could slide a long ways down these days,” Christie muses, just one note in a persistent theme: the toll a cruel economy takes on individual dignity, relationships, and happiness. Or, to put it another way, the power bad situations have to shake our faith in goodness.
The book ends as it began: a swirl of sad and happy, humor and pain. Part of its resolution seems a little too perfect at first, yet it’s an off-kilter kind of joy, fragile and pragmatic at once. “[T]o be human is to be broken,” Christie says, bestowing an imperfect benediction on the Humanity Project’s conference attendees (and the book’s readers). “To be alive is to be, in spite of everything, hopeful.”Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.