A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

Fellow blogger Kevin from Canada read, reviewed and enjoyed The Privileges, an earlier novel from American author, Jonathan Dee, and so when I saw a new title A Thousand Pardons from the same author, I knew I wanted to read it. Kevin had mixed feelings about The Privileges–enjoying it immensely at first (well this is my interpretation at least) but then feeling not-so-happy with an ending which he felt did not live up to the novel’s excellent opening. I say all this because I had the same reaction to A Thousand Pardons, a novel that had an absolutely tremendous start with a gripping plot, but then the novel appears to move into a different zone, dropping the storyline I so badly wanted to continue. And then the ending…well I’m still chewing it over, and now after reading A Thousand Pardons and re-reading Kevin’s review of The Privileges, I’m about to conclude that the ambiguous ending which I found disappointing, was a decision by the author–not to disappoint us, of course (who wants to do that to a reader?), but to show the emptiness and disenchantment of the American dream.

a thousand pardonsNow to the plot…

The novel begins with a view of a marriage–Ben, a New York attorney commutes to work from a gorgeous home in a small affluent town while his wife, Helen, is a stay-at-home mother to their 12-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. Ben pulls impossibly long hours at the office, arriving home just long enough to grab something to eat, walk around “like the walking dead,” and go to bed. Not much of a life.  Things have deteriorated to the point that Helen is trying to retrieve their relationship and their 18-year-marriage through therapy. Ben arrives home later than usual one night–a “passive-aggressive” move on Ben’s part, Helen is certain, and they barely make it to their therapist’s office for their weekly session and an unpleasant revelation:

“Because it’s all so unsurprising.” Ben said, very much as if he hadn’t heard anyone else’s voice. “I’m scared of it. I’m scared of every single element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That is what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every single night. I mean, no offense.”

“No offense?” Helen said.

Helen knows that she and Ben should divorce, but she’s in that mode of punishment and endurance:

She knew what the right thing to do was. Dismantle it together: help him find a new place, work out the money, sign whatever needed to be signed, put on a united front for poor Sara, who’d already had two parents abandon her, after all. But for once in her life Helen didn’t want to do it. Why should she make it easy for him? She’d made everything easy for him for eighteen years, and he’d repaid her by making an explosive, weepy public display of his horror at the very sight of her. Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.

I happen to be a believer in the idea that some people (with the exception of natural disaster, disease, or just plain bad luck) get what they want by hook or by crook. They may not be honest or straightforward about getting what they want, but somehow things just seem to “happen.” Back to that passive-aggressive thing. In Ben’s case, he seeks freedom from his boring, predictable life without taking firm, direct action, and just how he achieves his desire through sabotage takes up the first, gripping section of the novel. Shortly, and with virtually no warning except the fact that her marriage has been on the rocks for some time, Helen finds herself seeking work, and this section, covering Helen’s subsequent career takes up quite a chunk of the novel.

The section dealing with Ben’s self-destructive sabotage of his life is unbelievably good–after all a married father who’s affluent, and with a secure, enviable career has a lot to lose, but there’s also a lot of protective padding. So it’s logical that Ben is going to have to sabotage all his advantages in a spectacular way if he wants to jettison from his established life. But then the novel moves on, leaves Ben and follows Helen’s job hunt in New York. The move from Ben’s gripping, incredibly insane actions to the plod of a job hunt is a tremendous change of pace, and one that is not without its narrative problems. Helen has been out of the job market for over 10 years, and even when she did work she was a sales manager at Ralph Lauren. Somehow, with no experience whatsoever, she lands a decent job at a pathetically small PR company. I had problems with swallowing that part of the plot and could only conclude that she was hired because her new boss must have fancied her. My annoyance with this plot development was premature as the author addressed this issue later on.

As a reader I had also issues with Ben’s mental shift as he morphs from a man adamantly denying a mid-life crisis and making a complete idiot out of himself into the one character in the book who seems to have it all together. I began to wonder if he was on medication as he stoically swallows his pride and suffers through humiliation after humiliation in some sort of penance. Meanwhile Helen takes on the PR management of the sins of a small business owner, mega corporations, a film star and even the catholic church. She’s spent the last ten years of her life being the perfect mother and the perfect (here I invoke that rather sickening word,) “homemaker.” I suspect that Helen was as sick of her life as Ben was; he just expressed it better. Once in the work world, Helen gets a taste of just what it’s like to juggle parenthood with career demands, live with a judgmental teenager, spend hours on a ridiculous commute and come home too exhausted to do anything except sling take-out meals on the table for dinner.

 In spite of its flaws, this was a compulsive, addictive read which I finished in two sittings. While the ending left me scratching my head (back to Kevin’s response to The Privileges), some of the scenes and the characters were phenomenal. Jonathan Dee certainly has a knack for recreating the suffocation of upper-middle-class life with its markers of success, gleeful pettiness at failure and its delight in gossiping about those who’ve fallen off the middle-class wagon of respectability. There aren’t many likeable people here, and most of them are as sad and lost as Helen and Ben. One of my favourite characters was the rather bitter, deeply unhappy Bonifacio, hired by Ben–a hungry small-town lawyer who rents a space above a hardware store. He can’t hide just a sliver of glee at his client’s downfall:

When she looked over at Bonifacio, he wore a smirk like he was enjoying a bad TV show. How he must have hated guys like Ben, Helen thought–lawyers who rode off to Manhattan every morning while he climbed the stairs behind the hardware store and tried to act outraged over whatever sad grievance one of the locals might bring in.

So, not a perfect novel, but Jonathan Dee is certainly treading in the literary footsteps of Richard Yates with his themes of inertia, the dreary treadmill of routine, the slow death of romance and love, and the utter disenchantment with the American Dream.  Dee offers us a frightening, claustrophobic look at the American Dream which has somehow or another turned into the American Nightmare–Ben and Helen, initially at least, have everything we are supposed to strive for, and yet Dee shows us that this soulless existence is something no sane person would want, and as it turns out Ben and Helen don’t want it either. The conclusion leaves us with the uncomfortable, hollow feeling that there’s not much to replace our pathetic social goals and meaningless social status markers.

Review copy

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13 Comments

Filed under Dee Jonathan, Fiction

13 responses to “A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

  1. Brian Joseph

    The passages you quoted make this seem like an intriguing character study.

    I find that many really good authors will do odd, even frustrating things with their narratives. Sometimes it allows a novel to work on an entirely different level as I think that you are saying it does here.

  2. Your summary of my opinion of The Privileges is quite accurate. I’ve noted that this one is coming and this is the first review that I have read — it does seem that it shares a lot with the previous novel, so my interest in reading it is heightened. I have only read one of his books, but I think your comparison with Yates is valid. I appreciate the way he addresses the upper-middle class and their issues but, apparently, also feels a need to emphasize the hollowness of their lives.

    • I have the Privileges on the shelf yet to read. I wonder if, if years to come, all the criticisms we both had will be just part of how this author deals with his subject matter. In spite of the book’s flaws, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another title.

  3. Flawed but enjoyable anyway, am I correct?
    I can’t help thinking that the “one staying at home, one working” model is doomed to unbalance a couple. There’s no
    way to know how it is to be in the other’s shoes, so it doesn’t help empathy and communication.

    • Yes enjoyable. I agree with you, and I think that Dee is saying that the stay-at-home character has no idea what it’s like to juggle career, commute etc with parenting. The book opens with Helen getting herself worked up that Ben isn’t home yet and she decides this is deliberate. It isn’t but she’s watching the clock getting herself steamed up. When she’s working, suddenly she becomes the ‘unreliable one’ who may not be home on time…

  4. leroyhunter

    I was keen to read The Priviliges but just didn’t get to it. I wouldn’t be in a hurry on this but the Yates comparison (reinforced by Kevin) puts Dee on a different level in my mind. Now I’m definitely interested.

  5. leroyhunter

    I’ve seen all sorts of perspectives on the working vs stay-at-home dynamic play out amongst people I know. The common thing is the feeling that whatever choice is made must be defended / justified, and the alertness there is to perceived critcism.

  6. I have both Palladio and The Privileges and haven’t yet read either, which is unfortunate in a way as while it may have some issues I suspect this would be a better place for me to start – given I am basically the same sort of lawyer and presently am getting in each night around 10pm and crashing into bed about an hour later, which is distinctly tedious.

    That said, PR is a real job and this is not an easy climate for finding work. It is hard to believe clients accepting someone with no training or experience, or such a person being hired. I guess the novel wouldn’t have worked though if she hadn’t had a job with parallels to his, the more realistic scenario of her working in some retail outlet or whatever might make for a very different novel.

    The Yates comparison does sound valid.

    I do like the quotes. “I mean, no offence.” It sounds so true a thing for someone to say, and so stupid too.

    • Through the novel, I learned a bit about the PR biz and it made for interesting reading. The ease with which she finds a job is problematic and I think it would have been more feasible if she got the job through connections or something along those lines. Anyone who reads the book is aware of how tough the job market is out there–first hand or not–so that plot line isn’t easy to swallow. Although something crops up later on that hints at why she got the job.

      I thought you might relate to the grind of the fictional character’s job. The beginning of the novel and Ben’s colossal fuck up makes for some fantastic reading but the sudden change of pace is a problem. I think you’d like this but probably have about the same reaction as me. The part in the very beginning when Ben’s wife is waiting for him to come home and getting herself all steamed up as the minutes tick away is brilliant. I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another book by this author which says a lot really.

  7. A very interesting review Guy – so good I’m not sure I have to read the book now – I am rather put off by the thought that the only way you can explain Ben’s mental shift is by thinking that perhaps he was on medication. If an author leaves his readers as puzzled as that perhaps something’s not quite right!

    • Well medication seems to be the common option these days and I have to say that some people are a lot nicer to deal with. There have been times when people have seemed so changed, I’ve wondered if they’re lobotomized and then I catch on that pills are the root cause.

      Yes, I wish the author had addressed Ben’s new & improved attitude. How did he get so zen-like?

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