We first meet Charlie Barnes as he realizes he has “the big kahuna of cancers: pancreatic.” Bad news? It makes his day. He gets on the phone and begins calling everyone who ever slighted him, hoping to make them all sorry. “It’s like priority mail,” he says, that’s how fast it gets you. It kills you so fast you go to the grave like a cannonball. “It’s arguably the worst way anyone can die, with the exception of being hacked to death.”
Then comes the inconvenient revelation that Charlie isn’t sick after all. But that doesn’t keep him from feeling aggrieved, which seems to be his chronic condition. “Even with pancreatic cancer, they weren’t going to let him live!” Joshua Ferris writes in “A Calling for Charlie Barnes,” his fifth and most dazzling book, which should appeal even to those who never warmed to the other four. Ferris’s abundant skill has been evident since his debut novel, “Then We Came to the End,” was published in 2007, but here he has taken a huge leap forward, twisting semi-autobiographical material in such serpentine ways that even the author’s note is devious.
The through line is Charlie’s biography. But it isn’t presented linearly or reliably, and the book’s perspective on him changes in gobsmacking ways. The story is meta-narrated by Charlie’s son Jake Barnes, a novelist who turns it into a hall of mirrors for reasons that emerge over time. This is a more tender novel than Ferris’s others, but that doesn’t keep it from being murderously funny from start to finish. He can’t help being hilarious, and this material can’t help being tough.
Charlie, “effectively insane since about 1960,” is first introduced to us in 2008. By then he is 68 and has racked up five marriages, assorted children, at least 40 jobs, countless failures and disparate personalities to go with each new situation. We will not figure any of this out easily because the authors — Ferris and his alter ego, Jake — don’t want us to. Instead, the book zigzags artfully through time, gradually amplifying and modifying each phase of Charlie’s life, in ways that keep it constantly surprising. So an important character stays hidden until the final pages, simply because Jake didn’t like that person. “The son also lies,” this character angrily tells him, for the benefit of any readers who missed the winking Hemingway reference in Jake’s name.
Ferris loves names. He’s got a Letrois Ledeux in here, and Charlie’s early wives are chronologically Sue Starter, Barbara LeFurst (because he married a second Barbara) and Charley Proffit, who left him when she found out he couldn’t hold a job. In his Charley stage of life, Charlie actually did some good in the world, becoming part of what Ferris calls Old Poor Farm and caring about social services. Then he went into finance and started fleecing people, which seems to have suited him better.
“A Calling for Charlie Barnes” is split into two large sections, one called Farce and the other Fiction. Farce more than lives up to its title and is withering about Charlie’s cynicism. Fiction sees phantasmagorical good in him and adds balance to Ferris’s chronic embrace of darkness.
That darkness may have kept one of Ferris’s earlier novels, the Booker Prize finalist “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” from reaching the readership it deserved. “A Calling For Charlie Barnes” is much more apt to connect, even if it’s also Ferris’s most daring experiment. There are real people and real wounds buried in here somewhere. (Ferris has said that Charlie Barnes is modeled on his father, who died in 2014.) There’s a gimlet-eyed son trying to honor his father despite everything he knows. The stepmother and stepsibling problems sound real. The characters’ changes over time — hippie to financier, for instance — aren’t imaginary, and neither is the 2008 financial crash that ruins Charlie and enrages his clients. Or the fact that a crucial personal event is timed to Election Day in 2016.
Ferris’s prose remains taut and gorgeous, even when bleak. About a velvety theater, he says “one bobbed through it all dreamily as if on a princess’ pincushion,” describing not only the physical space but young Charlie’s lovestruck state of mind. The monstrous great-aunt whose child-rearing ruined Charlie is said to be “an enormous woman — 300 pounds, even allowing for the boutonniere.”
And this is from the book’s opening, which is self-explanatory: “Oh, what a glorious morning! Maybe. The weather in the basement was unknown. The computer required waking. Made its little nibbling noises when stirred from its slumber, said its staticky hellos. The old office chair. The cold basement damp. Steady Boy had a desk calendar from 1991, a letter opener in the fashion of a gem-encrusted rapier, a ratty-ass Rolodex, and at his feet a rug. The rug, however, made moving around in the roller chair a living hell.” (The nickname “Steady Boy” for Charlie is what Tiny is for a fat man.)
This book’s epigraph is an earnest passage from “The Glass Castle” in which Jeannette Walls lovingly thanks her family. Consider Ferris’s book the antithesis of that, and give him points for displaying sharp elbows before his story even starts. And for starting his last section with a self-referential “Then we came to the end.” Also give him props for finding precisely the right way to meld memoir with satire, to do this with bracing originality and to keep heads spinning from this novel’s first page to its last. Gamesmanship and love don’t mix easily. But Ferris has found a way to do it, and he’s risen to the top of his game.