What is life if not a quest to find one’s calling while massaging the narrative along the way? This question propels the eponymous protagonist, still struggling to wring meaning from his existence even as it crashes to an end, in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, the fourth novel from Joshua Ferris.
‘It preoccupied him: everyone had a calling. It depressed him: he had not found his. It gave him hope: he might still do so before he died,’ writes the story’s narrator, Jake Barnes, about his father, whose life clock is ticking with a cancer diagnosis. ‘The big kahuna of cancers: pancreatic.’ In contrast to his father, Jake has found his calling as a writer, much to the mystification of Charlie, who thinks writing novels a ‘very silly occupation’.
Ferris, who burst onto the literary scene with Then We Came to the End, a PEN/Hemingway first novel award-winning satire about American corporate life, and was Man Booker shortlisted in 2014 for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, is on his finest deadpan form here, skewering contemporary America and the shallow values it embodied in the heat of the 2008 financial crash, which is when Charlie Barnes receives his diagnosis.
We meet Charlie (ironic nickname Steady Boy, for his early inability to hold down a job ‘either because the pay was bad, or the boss was a dick, or the work itself was a pain in the ass’) hunkered in his basement, where he has spent 15 years running his own failing brokerage outfit. ‘It paid him peanuts and brought him nothing but grief.’
The cancer diagnosis has prompted a reckoning that sees the 68-year-old Charlie rummage around through a life history that includes five wives, four children and 30 or 40 jobs that have ranged from dressing up as a clown to designing the Doolander — a toupee-cum-Frisbee prototype that never gets off the ground.
The action is split into three sections of diminishing heft: Farce, or 105 Rust Road; Fiction, or 906 Harmony Drive; and The Facts, which serves as the longest and most colourful ‘acknowledgements’ section I can recall. What reads as a novel turns out to be Ferris’s twist on autofiction: his own father died of cancer in 2014 and this book is Ferris’s romp through the colourful characters in his own family, who have already provided material for some of his short stories.
Ferris may leave us gently puzzling over the veracity of various elements, but as Jake puts it when excusing any holes in Charlie’s life: ‘Every history, including our own first-person accounts, is a fiction ofa sort.’ Which stretches to any interpretation of what constitutes a calling, something to remember long after finishing this book.
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