A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: After frothiness comes leadenness

Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges with a double portrait that's tighter in focus and smaller in scale.

A man looking into a Manhattan shop window.
Aspirations: a shop window in Manhattan, 2008. Photograph: Erin Toland "Longing".

A Thousand Pardons
Jonathan Dee
Corsair, 288pp, £14.99

The American writer Jonathan Dee has followed his celebrated topical satire The Privileges, about a heartless New York couple, with a double portrait that’s tighter in focus and smaller in scale; a swift-moving, incident-rich comedy that opens with an 18-year marriage being demolished by a verbal blow. The scene of the crime is a marriage counsellor’s office – a room that Adam Morey, the husband in the last novel, refused on principle to enter. “In the world of finance,” he told himself, “the most highly evolved people were the ones for whom even yesterday did not exist.” But Ben Armstead is in a more accountable, backwards-looking world – the law – and in a novel more concerned with the collection of regrets and foibles that Adam dismissed as “baggage”.

Written with colloquial fluency, in a third person that leaps between points of view, A Thousand Pardons is about what happens when a husband turns to his wife and says, “I would like to wake up tomorrow next to someone who has no idea who I am,” adding by way of caution, “If anybody uses the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ right now I swear to God I am back here with a gun and shooting this place up like Columbine,” before stating a preference for “existential crisis”. One immediate effect of this outburst – and the lawbreaking, civil-suit-bringing behaviour that follows – is the uncertainty into which it plunges not Ben’s future, the prospect of which he claimed to loathe, but that of his comparably well-adjusted wife Helen, whose days as a popular housewife are “shot to hell” (“less by scandal than the toxicity of pity”).

At this point, the novel, its opening moves apparently influenced by Sidney Lumet’s cold satire Network (a man who’s had enough says so), mutates into the literary counterpart of a film almost opposite in outlook. Helen is 43 years old when, newly single, newly in need of an income, she takes the commuter train to Manhattan in search of employment – she’s a little younger than Jane Fonda in the soft-centred, pop-feminist screwball comedy 9 to 5, but her fate of selfrealisation through professional achievement is much the same. Having been a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond (“She’d even written some stories for the local weekly”), Helen finds herself a fish out of water, her misconceptions about life on dry land receiving “the exaggerated patience usually reserved for dealing with the very old”. But it isn’t long before she finds a job at a shabby but charming company, Harvey Aaron Public Relations, and not much longer before she turns it around. You can almost hear the strings when Helen’s new boss thanks her for bringing “new life” to “the whole enterprise” and Helen replies, “You’ve revitalised my enterprise, too.”

There’s more than a dash of the wish-fulfilment fantasy to Helen’s siege of New York, corresponding to a laziness of invention on the part of her creator. In Barnet Kellman’s comedy Straight Talk, a descendant of 9 to 5, it was plausible that the Southern cornball wisdom spouted by Dolly Parton’s character would make her an ideal host of a radio phone-in show. The idea that troubles with Ben have equipped Helen ideally for PR, that her essential naivety brings something distinctive to a cynical game, though similar in shape, is poorly worked out in its detail.

Helen’s emergence as an innovator in “crisis management” depends on a one-size-fits-all strategy, urging her clients to apologise, on the strength of which a multinational, Malloy Worldwide, hires her when it might just have copied her. Dee anticipates a resistance to these developments but by having Helen reflect that she does not “completely” understand why a particular instance of her “apology wrangling” had worked and having the big shot Teddy Malloy inform her, “Not many people . . . can do what you do. Nor can they be taught to do it,” he is likely to win round only the sort of reader who didn’t smell anything fishy to begin with.

If the novel lacks the technical rigour of pop-feminist screwball, it hopes to complicate its ethical picture by adjusting its lopsided view of gender relations. Raised as a Catholic, Helen is described in terms of holy traces (one character claims to get a “nun hit” off her). But she doesn’t appear interested in whether her husband, after a series of all too human mistakes (telling the truth, harassing an intern, drunkenly crashing his car), deserves a second chance, even though their adopted daughter, Sara, isn’t exactly thriving in a single-parent household and appears unambiguous in her preference for flawed father over “capital-H Humble” mother.

It’s even implied that Helen’s “talent for inducing apology” is a merely “lucrative” one, predicated on the insight, canny rather than pure-hearted, that human beings only condemn when denied the opportunity to forgive. Neither Helen’s conscience nor her success seems to be affected by the sincerity or otherwise of her clients’ confessions. Despite the emphasis on the illusory and stagemanaged, Dee is also concerned with the idea of genuine forgiveness, in particular the forgiveness Helen withholds from Ben.

The book’s title draws on the double meaning of “pardon”, as something granted as well as proffered, and there’s a tautness both to the book’s vocabulary and its whole thematic arrangement, which gives a crisp clarity to the early pages but which becomes naggy and claustrophic once connections – between PR and Catholicism, say – begin to pile up. After frothiness comes leadenness. If A Thousand Pardons still manages to be engaging and even winning, it is a testament to a set of comic gifts – mordant wit, control of tone – that are powerful enough to defeat its author’s self-destructive urges and his habit of drawing on established forms (featherweight comedy, moral parable) without adequately warding off their dangers.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic