12th of Never, James Patterson
By Maxine Paetro
What does it mean to say “I’m sorry”? Increasingly, in this age of ceremonial, highly ritualized apology, it’s hard to distinguish between true remorse and savvy public relations. Jonathan Dee’s sixth novel, “A Thousand Pardons,” was written before Lance Armstrong’s public shaming, but it speaks to something similar in the zeitgeist: the idea of confession as business strategy. Is reputation just a form of capital? What does it mean to apologize publicly for private sins, or privately for public ones? When one person grants another forgiveness, which of them is redeemed?
Whereas Dee’s brilliant 2010 novel “The Privileges” opens with a wedding, “A Thousand Pardons” opens with a marriage’s spectacular implosion. We first meet Ben and Helen Armstead as they head out for what they tell their 12-year-old daughter is a “date night.” As they leave the house, so estranged they can barely look at each other, their daughter tells them to have a good date, then pretends to throw up at the sappiness of the idea.
They will not have a good date, and there is nothing sappy about their actual destination, an appointment with a smug couples therapist. When she serves up yet another cliche – in one of the book’s many ironies, she suggests the Armsteads fix their marriage by scheduling date nights – something snaps in Ben. Although he has so far refused to say a word, he bursts into tears:
“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. ... 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 ... death sentence, coming back to that house every night. I mean, no offense.”
No one likes to be called a death sentence, and Helen decides she has no obligation to help Ben; she’ll let him find his own escape route. Soon afterward he does, breaking out of his depression long enough to create in a few short hours a scandal that ends his marriage, his job at a prestigious law firm and his standing in the community.
All of this unfolds in the novel’s first 20 pages. In the ensuing chapters, Dee traces the ways Ben, Helen and Sara, their daughter, are forced to reinvent their lives. Ben goes off to rehab, which he doesn’t actually need: the pretense will help his court case. Helen, who hasn’t worked in 14 years (and then as a sales manager for Ralph Lauren), has to figure out how to support herself and Sara.
It takes just one day of interviews for Helen to land a job at a public relations firm – a lucky hire, since she turns out to have a genius for crisis management. Her epiphany is that her clients, whether a politician who has beaten up his mistress or a restaurant owner who has been underpaying workers, can’t in fact “manage” crises; they can only beg forgiveness. “You will admit to everything,” she tells the politician. “You will apologize. ... You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way.” So convinced is she of the efficacy of her approach that she implements it even when a client is falsely accused. Come clean, she advises, even if you imagine you’re not dirty.
Helen’s job affords layers and layers of irony. There is, of course, the irony of prescribing “sincerity” in order to manipulate public opinion. There is the irony of Helen’s resolute lack of interest in more intimate forms of apology or forgiveness. (When Ben tries, with true sincerity, to apologize for the hurt he’s caused, she snaps: “You got what you wanted. It’s all destroyed now. I don’t know why you don’t go back to the house and put up a big Mission Accomplished banner.”) And there is the irony of Helen espousing a moral strategy she doesn’t seem to realize she learned from her detested ex, who believed he should face his disgrace with honesty.
Dee articulates complex emotional dynamics with precision and insight. After Ben’s scandal, he writes, Helen’s casual acquaintances “pretended not to see her ... not because they condemned or looked down on her but because the level of disgrace she’d been subjected to was so epic that they weren’t even sure how to acknowledge it,” while her close friends pretend everything is unchanged to show off their own generosity. The book’s gaze is often turned outward: Helen spends more time noticing loss of status (how she is treated at the grocery store, how Sara is treated by old friends) than she does noticing the loss of Ben himself. For most of the book she has little curiosity about where he might be; she never thinks of him with affection or longing. Ben has more compassion for Helen – performing an act of anonymous, poetic and somewhat improbable generosity on her behalf – but he, too, is uninterested in why he ever married her or how they became so distanced. To a large degree, this absence of feeling is understandable: the Armsteads’ marriage was dead long before Ben issued its death certificate. But the absence also says a great deal about Dee’s priorities as a writer. In examining the dissolution of a marriage, he is interested less in emotional nuance than in the opportunities that crisis affords.
The novel is ambitious, hewing tightly to its central themes while moving freely among multiple story lines. Dee nicely captures the adolescent Sara, who is coming of age without much help from her physically absent father or her emotionally preoccupied mother. The interactions between Sara and her mother are small wonders, each seemingly mundane conversation showing at its root a deep tangle of rejection and misunderstanding and longing. Likewise, Ben’s story becomes increasingly moving as he attempts to build a new life from the wreckage of his old one. The therapist who so loves cliche would probably say he has lost everything but found himself: his new life is smaller, poorer and full of minor humiliations, yet he’s free of the humiliation of falseness.
Less successful is a plot involving a world-famous movie star whose public self is so visible his private self has nearly vanished. His survival instinct remains, though, and when he finds himself in crisis, he calls on Helen – an old but long-forgotten acquaintance – to help. This development drives the book to its end, and while the twists are engaging, at times they feel compelled more by Thematic Concern than by psychological truth.
Dee’s gifts are often dazzling and his material meticulously shaped; the piling up of improbabilities is clearly deliberate. Yet their purpose feels murky. If Dee’s intent is to poke fun at the way meaningless apologies have devalued meaningful ones, there’s nothing wrong with highlighting his story’s ironies and scrimping on its agonies. Yet he seems to want it both ways – to have his characters and mock them, too – stranding the book between satire and emotional realism. “The Privileges” walks this difficult line as well, but its triumph lies in its perfect balance of irony and warmth. “A Thousand Pardons,” while an accomplished follow-up, doesn’t achieve the same greatness: without that essential generosity, we can’t quite trust everything it tells us.
(Katharine Noel is the author of a novel, ``Halfway House.'' She teaches at Claremont McKenna College.)
© The New York Times 2013See all Reviews from The New York Times