A Calling for Charlie Barnes
“A tour de force about failure and success, connection and isolation, about how we shape our lives by the stories we tell about them, and, ultimately, how stories redeem us.”
Joshua Ferris’ latest, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, features that all-American hero, the failure, the man who has many wacky entrepreneurial ideas, none of which succeed. Charlie Barnes is the inventor of the toupee-frisbee, among other novelties, and has as many failed marriages as start-ups (five ex-wives at last count). A life like that is bound to read like a farce—or a tragedy. Ferris makes it a bit of both by opening the novel with Charlie calling friends, family, former co-workers, anyone who once graced his Rolodex (yes, he would have one of those ancient devices) to let them know he’s dying of pancreatic cancer.
The cancer, however, doesn’t take center stage. Nor does death. The focus stays firmly on Charlie and the many mistakes he’s made in his life:
“His efforts had never been enough. When they were enough, they were wrongly directed. On those rare occasions when his every effort was perfectly on the mark, his timing sucked. When his timing was right, he lacked the funds. When the funds came through, he botched the execution. When the execution was seamless, the market failed to materialize. But no, there was always a market, it just wanted something different, something better, something unsoiled by his clumsy hands. All he touched turned to shit. He was born a nobody and he would die a nobody.”
Except that he doesn’t. Because one thing that Charlie has is children, including a foster son who adores him and is a bestselling author. This son, Jake, steps into the story and takes it over. In fact, he becomes the narrator, telling the reader about his own life, especially his childhood and the deep debt of gratitude he owes Charlie for taking him in and giving him a family, a place to belong.
Jake clearly sees Charlie’s warts, but he gives them a bigger context, one softened by love. It is that love that gives him the writer’s prerogative to move the pieces around on the gameboard, to shift the direction of the narrative. He admits to this kind of trickery early on, only to insist that this one time, in this one story, he won’t invent anything:
“Ordinarily, in a work of fiction, one is free to move a character around at will, to swap a cat in the window for a dog at his feet. . . . Charlie rescued, Charlie redeemed. . . . But I promised the old man to tell it straight this time, to stick to the facts for once, to abide by the historical record, and to exercise the discipline imposed by real life (the ‘harsh truth’ in Stendhal’s phrase), which has always been so loathsome to us both.”
Later, however, Jake admits:
“I do not have a lock on the truth, provided there is such a thing, and that, in fact, when we consider the necessarily curated nature of any narrated life, its omissions as well as its trending hashtags, if you will, we are forced to conclude that every history, including our own first-person accounts, is a fiction of a sort.”
The book becomes as much about storytelling, about the different versions families have, as about Charlie. Charlie is less a person than a character in his ex-wives’ stories, in his children’s sense of him, most of all, in how Jake regards him. As a foster son, Jake is an outsider to everyone except Charlie and himself. Charlie is his dad. Jake is Charlie’s son. No matter what Charlie’s other children and wives may say. Family, after all, is another kind of story we tell ourselves about how we’re connected, what our lives mean to ourselves and each other.
Ferris does something fascinating in this book: He evokes a distinctive family in all its complications while also calling into question every description he gives, every character he presents. After all, they’re all seen from a specific point of view, Jake’s. What is really true when the same event can be described differently by each person who experienced it? Charlie himself has bounced from one idea he’s tried to sell to another by creating convincing stories (the gist of marketing, after all).
A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a tour de force about failure and success, connection and isolation, about how we shape our lives by the stories we tell about them, and ultimately, how stories redeem us. That’s a lot of weight for one novel to carry, but Ferris deftly pulls it off, proving “the power you have when you control the narrative.”