Caroline Spalding, Features Correspondent

Review: A Calling For Charlie Barnes – Joshua Ferris

A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a deliciously frank and unreserved account of one man, epitomising the American dream, who, if we are blunt, appears to have achieved diddly squat.

A frisbee designed to look exactly like a flying Toupee? Why, surely that must simply be the best invention never to have reached its full potential? This one example of Charlie Barnes’ business ventures best sets out why so much has failed. He has ideas, he has great vision (or so he would like us to believe) – but unfortunately nothing to date appears to have translated into a “success.”

We meet Charlie Barnes in 2008 and he awaits confirmation that he does indeed have pancreatic cancer. In the opening chapters, we don’t observe him calmly reflecting on his 69 years; instead, he wants to tell the world: this is it - Charlie Barnes is going to die. What does he expect – sympathy, remorse? He calls his children, and leaves messages: “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to tell her all this yourself?” asks a colleague of his daughter. He answers in the negative, before clarifying: “No, definitely not.”

The character to whom we are introduced, by way of his own thoughts, actions and exchanges with his nearest and dearest don’t convey a particularly likeable character. Yet, there is something inherently charismatic about Charlie Barnes, and rather than feel pity, or distaste towards this failed, and somewhat impoverished entrepreneur, instead, you find yourself almost rooting for him. If only just another chance, if only his timing hadn’t always “sucked” – then maybe he could have made it.

The narrative looks back on his colourful life, and we gradually discover that the narrator of this account is his son, Jake Barnes, a successful novelist, whose own fiction did appear on the New York Times bestseller list “A hundred years ago.”

The story he tells is deliberately awkward and often humorous – highlighting particularly the comedy witnessed in strained familial relationships. For Charlie Barnes It’s particularly complicated: four ex-wives and children who aren’t on the best of terms, either with each other, himself, or his current wife number five.

Jake shifts the narrative to a more personal account. There is humour, but there are sizeable passages full of love, compassion and respect. Jake Barnes knows his father is, to many, a fraud. He knows the decisions taken by Charlie haven’t always been made by his brain, but instead by his lust, desire and greed. He knows his dad isn’t perfect, but it isn’t his objective to convince us otherwise. He tells us he just wants to tell the truth.

The book is packed full of funny, frank and sometimes brutal exchanges, infused with cynicism but underlined by the fact this narrator truly adores his father, and this respect is evident throughout. And with this approach, we at times also see directly through the façade Charlie will create for himself: we feel his anguish, we feel his remorse, however fleeting it may be.

The book explores the blurred lines between our own personal fiction and reality and how we, and those around us, navigate this path through our lives. At times poignant, perhaps even moving, the narrative progresses at a pace that keeps us engaged. And as we start to piece together the jigsaw of Charlie’s history, we also acquire greater knowledge of the characters that surround him. People often aren’t what they seem, and first impressions are often as inaccurate as the charade many of us perform to the wider world around us. The truth is often painful, people don’t get along, and much of what we do just fails: that’s life.

The skill of this author resides in how he blends salient points in an otherwise comical story: a fusion of relatable truths, recognised fictions and satire all make a deliciously dark melange. The book expertly picks apart not only the absurdity of the ‘American Dream’ in itself, but of families themselves, whilst also casting a light on the importance and necessity of these intimate connections. Opinions and memories can be skewed and influenced by the position and demeanour of those doing the original observation, but ultimately, we hope, the truth will out.

It might be a cliché to say that this book is novel and refreshing, but it is. It does not need polysyllabic prose, or complicated literary techniques – it reads at times more like a journal entry of a particularly talented wordsmith. Beyond the compelling storyline, it is the vitality of the characters and their spirited language that take the reader centre stage. Many will recognise and appreciate the truths and the fictions that are shared, and remind us of the nonsense of life, whilst also enjoying what is a rollicking good read.

A Calling for Charlie Barnes is published by Viking