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.
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.