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A Calling for Charlie Barnes
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Named a best book of the year by NPR, Vogue, and the New York Times Book Review, the hilarious and profound new novel from National Book Award finalist Joshua Ferris is “a fine American novel about family, love, and a decent but flawed man trying to be better" (Stephen King).
Someone is telling the story of the life of Charlie Barnes, and it doesn't appear to be going well. Too often divorced, discontent with life's compromises and in a house he hates, this lifelong schemer and eternal romantic would like out of his present circumstances and into the American dream. But when the twin calamities of the Great Recession and a cancer scare come along to compound his troubles, his dreams dwindle further, and an infinite past full of forking paths quickly tapers to a black dot.
Then, against all odds, something goes right for a change: Charlie is granted a second act. With help from his storyteller son, he surveys the facts of his life and finds his true calling where he least expects it—in a sacrifice that redounds with selflessness and love—at last becoming the man his son always knew he could be.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a profound and tender portrait of a man whose desperate need to be loved is his downfall, and a brutally funny account of how that love is ultimately earned.
“A masterpiece that shines a revealing light on both family and fiction itself.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
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I’d like to thank my brother, Brian, for standing by me when we were growing up and while I wrote this. I’m also grateful to my mother for believing in art and truth and for supporting the idea of the book; to my brilliant and talented older sister, Lori, for coming around to it; and to my younger sister, Maureen, whom I will always love.
—Jeannette Walls, from the
acknowledgments page of The Glass Castle
105 Rust Road
Day of His Diagnosis
Steady Boy woke, showered and spritzed, skipped breakfast for the time being, and headed in to work.
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. So a sheet—listen to this. This is a true story. A sheet of stamped plastic specifically designed to facilitate the easy rolling of roller chairs in challenging terrain was purchased from Office Depot some years back by Steady Boy—
Steady Boy? No one had called him that in thirty, forty years. Back then, Charlie Barnes had found it hard to keep a job, either because the pay was bad, or the boss was a dick, or the work itself was a pain in the ass, and someone, an uncle, probably, dubbed him Steady Boy and the name stuck, the way “Tiny” will stick to a big fat man. Steady Boy’s knocking off early again, Steady Boy’s calling in sick…that sort of thing. The paying gig that another man considered manna from heaven was for Steady Boy an encroachment on private land. He valued his freedom. He enjoyed his sleep. He liked to read the funny pages at his leisure.
So much for all that. Steady Boy was Mr. Charles A. Barnes now, sixty-eight years old that morning, a small businessman and father of four, and likely to live forever.
Ah, but it was all pretense and fakery. He was a big fat fraud!
Shouldn’t think like that, but it was true. Goddamn it was, certainly where his teeth were concerned. Other areas, too. His achievements, his…framed certificates. Big deal! He hadn’t even finished college. Hang that up on your wall, Steady Boy. Failure number one, as far as he was concerned: no college degree. Failure number two: all the times he lied about having a college degree. Failure number three: ah, screw this. (Failure number three was his reluctance to look back for too long.) He was too proud and too pressed for time to be reviewing all his damn failures. We’d be here all year. Steady Boy didn’t have a year. Steady Boy had cancer, that’s what he had.
But hey, not just any cancer. The big kahuna of cancers: pancreatic. Heard about that one? Cancer of the pancreas is the piano that falls from the sky. You have time to glance up, maybe. Then, splat! Like a bug on the cosmic grille.
His achievements—ha! He’d spent half his life prepping the next big thing. It never panned out. Steady Boy did not, in fact, have a hard time holding down a job. He just never wanted to be a sucker, a schlub, or a midlevel this or that. Like anyone, he had hoped to make a killing, become a household name, live forever. Well, he would not, now. That was just a done deal.
We really need to stop calling him Steady Boy.
Good God, he thought first thing as he took a seat at his desk, the failures! All the marketing materials he still had somewhere, still shrink-wrapped. Bales of the stuff. Beautiful four-color trifold brochures in service to nothing now, nothing. His sunk costs alone could bury him alive. In pursuit of the American dream, Steady Boy had spent a small fortune on promotional ballpoints. He’d branded water bottles, key chains, stress balls. Bold Charlie Barnes would have branded his own ass with a red-hot poker to give his ideas a better shot in the marketplace. But what happened, every time? Nothing happened. Without so much as a whimper, they just withered and died.
What do you want from me, huh? What did you expect?
Those were some of the questions Steady Boy was asking that morning, after waking his computer and sitting awhile with the rapier-style letter opener, contemplatively cleaning his nails.
But of whom was he asking them? His children? Ex-wives?
Old colleagues, maybe. Like that bastard Larry Stoval.
He knew Larry from his time at Bear Stearns—that scrappy brokerage firm with the dog-eat-dog mind-set, now kaput. He and Larry Stoval were good buddies back then. This was years ago. Charlie worked the retail desk while Larry cleared dubious trades at the direct orders of Jimmy Cayne, Bear’s CEO, doing God knows what damage to the moral universe…but what was it that kept Larry up at night? It wasn’t boiler rooms and FTC fines. It was Charlie’s affair with a nurse at First Baptist.
It was fall, 1992. The nurse’s name was Barbara. Larry didn’t like her. Didn’t like the idea of her. Larry, the Oak Brook deacon, didn’t give a damn about Wall Street thievery, but coveting thy neighbor’s wife—now that Larry could not abide. Human hypocrisy of this magnitude was one reason Charlie always felt far from God. Little did Larry know that that guilt-ridden affair, which ended when Charlie left Evangeline and married the nurse, sent him, for the first and only time in his life, to a therapist’s couch just to pull himself together. Honestly, he’d assumed the extramarital shame would go on eating him alive, like the guy who stole fire from the gods and had his liver picked clean by birds. But did Larry offer him any comfort? Take-home pay that put Larry Stoval in the halls of Valhalla, but he still couldn’t afford a little compassion for his fellow fallen man. “Larry,” Charlie had said, making himself vulnerable to his good old friend, “I’m in real trouble here,” and what’d the guy do? Treated him like a fucking pariah. He set down the letter opener, picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Wells Fargo. Larry Stoval’s office.”
“So,” Charlie said, “Larry works for Wells now, does he?”
Charlie was in the roller chair, on top of the slip mat that lay on top of the rug, the cordless at his ear. It had been over fifteen years since he had last spoken to Larry Stoval.
“He sure does,” the woman said.
“He was at Washington Mutual before Wells,” Charlie said, “and UBS before WaMu.” When the woman said nothing, he added, “As you can tell, I like to keep an eye on his career.”
“I can see that,” the woman said. “But unfortunately, Larry hasn’t quite made it into the office this morning. Can I leave a message for you?”
“Sure,” he said. “This is Charlie Barnes calling. I’m an old colleague from Bear Stearns. Can you tell Larry that I have pancreatic cancer, please?”
The receptionist went silent.
“That’s Charlie Barnes,” he said. “Old colleague. Pancreatic cancer. Thank you.”
He hung up.
The events currently being narrated unfolded in the fall of 2008, at the start (hard as it was to believe at the time) of an era of hope and change. There was a sudden massive liquidity freeze, the banks were crumbling, the feds were scrambling, the Great Recession was on its way. It was a golden era, believe it or not, yet things were bad. People were losing their homes, their livelihoods, their nest eggs. Government bailouts followed the corporate bleeding. The asylum, meanwhile—by which Charlie meant banking institutions, state governments, the White House—had been overtaken some time back by the inmates themselves, a slate of elected officials and their functionaries that was, to a man, entirely fucking corrupt.
The reckoning at Bear Stearns had come six months earlier, in March. If you don’t remember Bear, all the better. But make no mistake, this is a true story: Bear Stearns was once an estimable American institution and Jimmy Cayne its hotshot CEO. Then the fifth-largest investment bank on Wall Street went belly-up after a single bad quarter. Hard to believe. But was it, really? They were a bunch of swinging dicks getting filthy rich off risky bets and boiler rooms. Wasn’t it just a matter of time?
Jimmy Cayne—oh boy! For Charlie Barnes, that man was the face of every greedy deal now coming back to haunt the country. He knew him firsthand—had met him once, anyway. Little guy, not much to look at, but charismatic in a bulldog way. He had swanned through the Chicago office chomping down on one of his famous cigars on a day in ’92—and it was beholding this plump, rotten, smug Jimmy Cayne in the flesh that, in part, prompted Charlie to quit Bear Stearns and go out on his own the following year, specializing in retirees.
Now, fifteen years later, the million-dollar ideas had compounded all around him, and stacks of paper climbed his desk. He reached for the monkey’s-paw back scratcher he kept inside a coffee cup (claw and container branded for separate concerns, but blaring the same toll-free number) and worked it between his shoulder blades, then along the pink purlieus of his salt-and-pepper beard. At a moment he was dying of cancer, could he get in touch with Cayne, as he had just done Stoval? Odds were not good. But then Charlie darted the monkey’s paw back into the coffee cup with a clatter and turned his attention to the desktop computer. After a moment’s search, there was a listing for Jimmy Cayne, complete with phone number and a Manhattan address, all for a twenty-dollar fee. It was like having sudden access to J. Pierpont Morgan. Steady Boy didn’t have twenty dollars just hanging around, but he did have an ax to grind and not much else going on besides.
“Good morning,” he said when the caller picked up. “I’m looking for Jimmy Cayne.”
“Jimmy Cayne? James Cayne? Former CEO of now-defunct Bear Stearns? Is he available?”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong number,” the man said.
“Hold on,” he said. “I just paid twenty bucks for this number. Are you sure?”
“There’s no one here by that name.”
“I’m looking for Jimmy Cayne,” he said. “I’m looking to give him a piece of my mind.”
“There’s no one here by the name of Cayne.”
“How dare he sell subprime mortgages to any stiff with a pulse? How dare he leverage the hell out of Bear and leave the taxpayer holding the bag? You tell him Charlie Barnes thinks he’s a rat fucking bastard—”
The man hung up.
Probably hadn’t cared for all the profanity. Who could blame him? Guy’s going about the ordinary course of a morning, picks up the phone and gets cursed at. But you know who that caller—he wasn’t the caller; technically, Charlie was the caller; still, Charlie thought of him as the caller—who that caller really wouldn’t have cared for, in that case? Jimmy fucking Cayne, that’s who! Every word out of that man’s mouth was a curse. He called the man back.
“Sorry to bother you again.”
“What do you want?”
“Please allow me to apologize. You answer the phone and the other guy goes off. That’s not fair. But you see,” he said, and paused. “You see, I have pancreatic cancer.” He paused again, swiveling a little, idly smoothing back with a fingertip the desk calendar’s frayed edge. “I don’t know how much you know about that particular type of cancer.”
He fell silent to allow the man time to reply.
“Let me give you some idea, then,” he said. “You die. They diagnose you, and a few months later, or a few weeks later, that’s it. You die.”
Still nothing from the man.
“Guess it’s fair to say I’m angry. I’m still pretty young, relatively speaking.”
“How old are you?” the man asked.
There was a long pause.
“That’s not exactly young,” the man said.
“No, I suppose not. But consider this,” he added. “There is no silver lining with pancreatic cancer. It combines the agony of ordinary cancer with the fear and suddenness of a heart attack.”
The man made no reply.
“Fact of the matter is, I’ve spent my entire life pursuing the American dream, only to find out here at the eleventh hour that it was nothing but a scam. The books were cooked. And now I’m dying. I’ve wasted my life.”
Unbelievably, the man still had nothing to offer him.
“Are you sure there’s no Jimmy Cayne there?”
“I’ll let you go, then,” he said. “I’m sure you have better things to do. And I don’t have much time myself. Sorry again for the cursing.”
“Good luck to you,” the man said.
“Thank you,” he said, then hung up.
Turns out they weren’t such different men, really, Charlie Barnes and Jimmy Cayne. Cayne was from Evanston, outside Chicago. Charlie was born near Chicago himself. Cayne played bridge. Charlie played bridge. Both men were rather vain of their bridge games. Neither Cayne nor Charlie had graduated from college. Cayne got his start in sales—photocopiers, then scrap iron. Charlie, too, had a career in sales, beginning (like Cy Lewis, another Bear CEO) on the sales floor of a shoe store. In Charlie’s case, the store was Jonart’s off East Main in the town of Danville, Illinois, where he was born in 1940. Jerry will tell you the store was Mosser’s on Vermilion. It was not Mosser’s, Mosser’s came two years after Jonart’s. At Jonart’s, and later at Mosser’s, Steady Boy distinguished himself. He was a hell of a shoe man. Had a feel for people and a nice soft touch. Happily fell to all fours just to squeeze an instep. His way with laces could wow the casual onlooker, and he even knew how to make the ladies with hammertoe happy.
Eventually, Jimmy Cayne and Charlie Barnes entered the world of high finance, both as retail brokers—Cayne in ’69, Charlie in ’85. By the time Bush was “elected,” Cayne, W.’s biggest booster, was earning fifteen million dollars a year as the CEO of Bear Stearns. Charlie’s haul as the top dog of his own concern that year was roughly thirty-four thousand dollars and change. Five years later, it was flat, while Cayne’s had more than doubled. The big difference seemed to be that Cayne wasn’t specializing exclusively in retirees.
For here is where Charlie Barnes and Jimmy Cayne diverged radically. Charlie wasn’t willing to sell out his country just to make a buck. When he could take no more of Bear’s dirty tricks, he quit. He saw how old-timers were getting fucked, quite frankly, by the conflicts of interest at all these churn-and-earn brokerage shops like Bear, where a perfectly good portfolio would be raided every six months for the sake of its commissions. Charlie’s idea was to eschew commissions altogether in exchange for an annual fee, which would cover everything from the initial consultation and financial plan to all subsequent trades and transactions, year after year, thereby guaranteeing an honest broker. Fiduciary duty, it was called. The year Charles turned fifty-three, he was entirely dedicated and doing noble work on behalf of the little guy, putting the era of Steady Boy permanently to bed. He called his company the Third Age Association, or TTAA. Fifteen years later, it remained his going concern. It paid him peanuts and brought him nothing but grief.
For he currently had under management a mere eleven mil. Sounds like a lot, maybe, but in the world of high finance, goddamn chump change. He had cobbled that money together from the cup holders and change purses of his aging clientele, and managing it barely rose to a pastime most days. He woke, moved a little money around, fielded a few phone calls, and then broke for lunch.
Missed his true calling, maybe—who knows? Squandered too much time early on scrambling for purchase (as, behind his desk, he ruminatively resumes cleaning his nails with the letter opener), then hit fifty and panicked. Life was a delicate balance. If only he could have taken a breather in, say, ’67, really buckled down and completed his college degree, then he might have done something with his life. He played the dilettante instead. Just ask Jerry, his oldest son. Always giving him copies of religious books, Jerry—the Zen master—hoping to enlighten him. Jerry had his degree. Three of them, in fact. You might say Jerry was addicted to the acquiring of advanced degrees, as the light of pure reason led him out of the profane world where his father dwelled. Earning a keep—now that proved a bit harder for Steady Boy’s son. Jerry was a chip off the old block where regular employment was concerned. He loved his truer truths, but the ones he found waiting for him in the corporate world, the eternal corruptions of the modern workplace—annoying coworkers, the profit motive—disgusted and besmirched him. He always quit in a huff. Then he ran out of cash and had to take new work, only to quit again, angrier than before. Now, at forty-nine, Jerry had been forced to accept a subpar coding job for a multinational headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. He hadn’t been eager to go all the way to Belgium for a paycheck, but he had alienated every HR person in corporate America by then and was in dire need of money.
“Good morning,” Charlie said. “I’m looking for Jerry Barnes.”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
Charlie had been expecting a formal and lilting European to answer the phone when he called the number Jerry gave him, but he got this guy instead—another American hire, he presumed.
“This is Charles Barnes calling. I’m Jerry’s father.”
“Oh, right,” the guy said. “Right. No, Jerry is, uh…Jerry just stepped away. From his desk. For like a minute. For lunch. Can I take a message?”
“A little late for lunch, isn’t it? What time is it there?”
As Charlie raised a starched wing under basement rafters to consult his wristwatch, a vintage Rolex, the only authentic piece in his stable of fakes, the man on the other end made no reply.
“Never mind. Have Jerry call me, will you? Tell him I have news. Tell Jerry that his father has pancreatic cancer.”
“Oh,” he said to the man. “Sounds like you know a thing or two.”
The man went quiet.
“Personally, I knew very little until just recently. Turns out it’s the most aggressive of all the cancers. Hard to detect. Spreads quickly. Five percent survival rate. I should have all the details later today.”
The man again said nothing in reply.
“It’s arguably the worst way anyone can die, with the exception of being hacked to death, I suppose. Tell Jerry he might want to fly home. Up to him.”
“I’ll give him the message,” the man said.
“Thank you,” he said. “I have to go now. I don’t have much time.”
He hung up.
If Jerry had doubted that Charlie would ever “get real,” if the Zen master suspected that Steady Boy would never touch some fundament of the True, which he himself was always passing back and forth between his Buddha’s hands, here was the Angel of Death in his pancreatic disguise to prove him wrong. Charlie would not elude the long nightmare that was motherfucking reality this time around.
But he couldn’t die just yet. He had to get out of that house first.
How he hated 105 Rust Road! He had arrived there in ’93, an eventful year in Steady Boy’s life. He was through with Bear, had fallen in love with Barbara, finally managed to serve Evangeline divorce papers, and launched TTAA. That house was intended to be a temporary station in which to summon up the blood once more, make a killing, have his second act. Then, with Jimmy Cayne–like money, he would leave behind the low ceilings of 105 Rust Road, its bad carpeting and cramped bedrooms, to name just three of its odious features, and buy for his dearly beloved the house of her dreams.
But TTAA hadn’t panned out, and now his temporary station was turning fifteen years old. He knew he was lucky to have it just as the banks were foreclosing on so many others. But would he die there? Would he really go to his grave right there in the house on Rust Road?
Not if this new idea of his was as good as he believed it to be. He needed only: a name, a tagline, a logo, a trademark, a color palette, a marketing plan, an angel investor or two…so much to do! Then he recalled that he could strike one of those line items from the list, as the perfect name had come to him (during the previous night’s tossing and turning) all in a flash: Chippin’ In.
“I’d like to send a Word doc your way,” he said in the next phone call he made that morning, intended to get all good things rolling. “An idea still in its planning stages, so go easy on me, but give me your gut, too, if you don’t mind. Do you mind?”
“I don’t mind,” Rudy said.
His kid brother, two years his junior. Rudy lived in Tucson, Arizona, but Steady Boy could still see him clearly: skeptical brow furrowed like a hound dog’s, flaring nostrils one cup size too large for the slender stem of his nose. Charlie didn’t want to burden him with the bad news. If Rudy, their mother’s favorite, knew Charlie was sick or dying, it would quickly derail the conversation, for his brother was a quack who ran an online venue for vitamin supplements and miracle cures. Charlie didn’t need some dubious regimen. He needed honest feedback.
“Sending now,” he said. “Call you later.”
He hung up.
He stepped away for a quick bite, walked up the stairs to the kitchen. That’s right: fifteen years after leaving Bear, he was still headquartered between a clothing rack full of winter coats and a Whirlpool dryer—the only honest boiler room in the brokerage business. Honesty tossed you down the basement stairs, and no amount of whimpering would persuade the gatekeeper to let you up again, to feel the sun, breathe fresh air and take a much-needed piss on the green green grass. An honest man was a damn dog in this world, made to heel and told to stay put, while the dishonest man got filthy stinking rich and stuck the country with the tab.
He went outside to retrieve the morning paper. As he emerged from under the portico, the bright day bushwhacked him. The warmth percolated, pricking him. Steady Boy paused, lifted his face to the sun. He felt a little drunk. He was present, in heat like that, at the launch of Apollo 11. He felt the same heat ten years later, on a rare vacation, under a Florida palm. He ran naked in summer as a little boy. He shucked corn during an Illinois drought. He watched his pebbly footprints evaporate behind him on the poolside concrete. He rode in a canoe under a canopy of trees as a trickle of sunlight danced over the water, as elsewhere in memory it did over old barnyards and forest floors. A thundering, brain-clearing sneeze, exquisite in every way, followed in the next instant, and he opened his eyes and carried on in the shuddering aftermath to the curb and the Chicago Tribune.
On his way back up the drive, he was filled with rage again, briefly, as he read the headline through the blue plastic sleeve. It was a terrible time to be dying, what with the world in the crapper. He took it personally. For what did any of it matter, what was the point of life, if you couldn’t sense, however dimly, that we were making progress? Almost instantly, he recalled his son. No, not Jerry—Jerry’s younger brother, the boy called Jake. Of all his children, Jake represented Charlie’s own private hope and change, with his intelligence, his eloquence, his handsome—
Wasn’t picking up.
“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. This is a more tender novel than Ferris’s others, but that doesn’t keep it from being murderously funny from start to finish...Ferris's most daring experiment...Ferris’s prose remains taut and gorgeous, even when bleak. 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.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Dazzling…There's no shortage of make-believe in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Ferris' fifth, and best, book. A Calling for Charlie Barnes wears its metafictional heart on its sleeve, but as smart as it is, Ferris never shows any signs of falling in love with his own cleverness. Literary experiments without warmth tend to fall flat for most readers, but Ferris' novel is — remarkably, given its flawed subject — full of heart...In his previous works, Ferris has proved that he's one of the best American authors of comic fiction working today. His humor is on full display with A Calling for Charlie Barnes, but so are his intelligence and compassion; it's a masterpiece that shines a revealing light on both family and fiction itself.”
—Michael Schaub, NPR
- "Joshua Ferris is one of our best writers, and A Calling for Charlie Barnes is wonderful: fast and deep, urgent and brilliant. Ingeniously written, it had me up reading late into the night. A hilarious, intimate, and scathing takedown of so many American vanities."—Dana Spiotta, author of Wayward
- “Dazzling. Mind-blowing. About as much fun as you can have without risking arrest.”—Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and Chances Are…
- "If Augie March was a “Columbus of the near-at-hand,” Charlie Barnes is a whole America: a dreaming, scheming paterfamilias forever “expanding out to the coasts” and outstripping whatever inconvenient facts or exuberant fictions might hope to contain him. Is he for real? Are any of us? This much is certain: Funny, moving, and formally a work of genius, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is quite literally the book Joshua Ferris was born to write."—Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire
- “With meticulous, wry prose and a dash of self-effacing metafiction, Joshua Ferris delves deeply into the simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary life of Charlie Barnes, a man with as much failure in him as found in our bankrupted country. This novel, about dentures and toupees and all the ways we disguise ourselves from our intimates, is at its large heart a moving portrait of a father and son to rival the best of Roth.”—Teddy Wayne, author of Apartment
- "The language of this novel is by turns conversational, comically essayistic and lyrical. The first half of the book, in which Jake constructs a vivid, detailed portrait of Charlie’s life of short-circuited careers and failed marriages, achieves a rollicking momentum. The latter half creates more exquisite pressure with sly subversions and reversals that reveal, in the end, an object our metafictionally erstwhile narrator must teach himself to recognize: an abandoned kid’s broken heart. For all of our hope, the novel asks, how much can we actually alter about ourselves, not to mention the world we’ve been hurled into? To list everything in play in this novel, including societal drift, ideological cleavage, the nature of truth and fiction, the alienation of families, the ravages of capitalism visited even on those who feel they have some agency in the system, might make A Calling for Charlie Barnes sound cluttered. It’s not. Ferris is in shrewd command of his thematic and syntactic trajectories. This novel is a passionate, well-constructed, often hilarious and, at times, profound plunge into grief, both civic and intimate, as well as a culmination (so far) of the literary explorations Ferris has been undertaking since he arrived.”—Sam Lipsyte, The New York Times Book Review
- "Ferris’s new novel is meta-narrated by Jake Barnes, a novelist who turns his father Charlie’s life into a hall of mirrors for reasons that emerge over time. Ferris has said that Charlie Barnes is modeled on his own father, who died in 2014. The book zigzags artfully through time, gradually amplifying and modifying each phase of Charlie’s life, in ways that keep it constantly surprising. This is a more tender novel than Ferris’s others, but it is also funny from start to finish. Our reviewer Janet Maslin says this is Ferris’s 'most dazzling' book, and that he has 'risen to the top of his game.'"—New York Times Editors' Choice
- "With A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Ferris has written his finest novel yet: a fabulist yarn about a flawed father in the twilight of his life, whose numerous get-rich-quick schemes and busted marriages have vaulted the American Dream forever out of his reach. Our narrator is Jake Barnes, Charlie’s son, whose earnest but unreliable memories of his father call the narrative’s very fabric into question: how can we rightly remember those closest to us? Does our intimacy blot out the truth? By turns lively, laugh-out-loud funny, and tear-jerking, this is Ferris at the height of his powers."—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
- “A poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful. Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.”—BookPage
“Funny and sweet, Ferris’s novel is narrated by Jake Barnes, the son of the title character and a successful author, who tells the story of his flawed dad’s, shall we say, colorful, life. So many failed business ideas. Many, many ex-wives. A cancer diagnosis. A second act. Love, death and family? We’re in.”
- "A deeply funny, very moving book about that most pivotal and permanent of destinations: death. Ferris's hijinks are serious; his play is profound. There is magic in these pages."—Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies
- “Like the best comedy, A Calling for Charlie Barnes has its fair share of angst. Death (or is it vanity?) hovers over a story of petty hustles and towering ambitions, all of it rendered with the comic ferocity that is Ferris's great gift. You could fill the back of a pickup truck with novels about sons trying to understand their father, but you'll not find another one as suave and daring as this one, warm and furious, and unfailingly funny.”—Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love
- “Charlie Barnes will go down as one of the great characters in contemporary literature, a man both bigger than life and smaller than his own aspirations, a feckless optimist with a gambler's heart. Joshua Ferris's sly, funny, unexpectedly moving novel is a wholly original take on family dysfunction, a clear-eyed look at the stories we tell ourselves about the people who made us.”—Jennifer Haigh, author of Heat and Light
- “Brilliant, funny, heartbreaking--Ferris has taken the Updike-Roth model and set it spinning with masterly narrative fireworks. Family, memory, ambition and death, all told with dervishing glee. Not just a daredevil of a novel, but something truly new.”—Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less
“This charming and witty novel tells a wholly inventive modern American story.”
- "For those who fell in love with Joshua Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (me, I did), A Calling for Charlie Barnes feels like something of a return to the comic-existential themes of that first book: What is work, and why do we do it? Rather than an office, the setting here is Charlie Barnes’s basement, where he’s been camped out for several years trying to get his long-floundering money-management business to take off (a fitting transformation of the office architecture after a year-plus of WFH). Except the runway for his floundering business has been so long that it seems like he may forever occupy this state of perpetual taxi. But then some news: Charlie is dying of cancer—or at least he thinks it’s likely that he is—and he begins to ponder just how he’s spent the minutes and years and decades of his life. What follows is a quasi-stream-of-consciousness romp through his love affairs and misadventures."—Vogue
- “A profound and tender portrait of a man whose desperate need to be loved is his downfall, and a brutally funny account of how that love is ultimately earned.”—Book Reporter
- "A magnificent novel, one that keeps re-inventing itself as it goes: a master class both in technique and in emotional acuity. Ferris is pretty much peerless as a sentence-writer, and when he takes on father-son dynamics — the love, the grief, the worship, the anger — those sentences go in like daggers. Charlie Barnes clears the very high bar of being Ferris's best book.”—Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges
- "Ferris writes with an exuberant style that propels the reader... as A Calling for Charlie Barnes shows, fiction is an art form deliberately used to get to a deeper truth than fact. It’s not a denial of reality, but a more serious journey into it."—The Boston Globe
“Ferris does something fascinating in this book… a tour de force.”
—Marissa Moss, New York Journal of Books
- “A riotous bildungsroman, its delivery system a hilariously unreliable narrator.”—Shelf Awareness
- “With a Rothian sense of humor and equally slippery relationship to fiction and fact, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a return to form for the author.”—Buzzfeed News
“It's a touching, thought-provoking story about family, duty, and the difficult ways in which we all shape our own history.”
—Town & Country
- “Ferris is one of the master chroniclers of our declining American empire and spirit—his special gift is delivering the bad news with both laughs and an enormous amount of empathy that, at his best, recalls the work of Emerson and Thoreau.”—The Millions
- “A compassionate, metafictional portrait of a flawed father and his crumbling notion of the American dream… The story is often quite funny and the themes at its core are those that will forever preoccupy humankind: purpose and death, but, mostly, love. Of Ferris’s work, this is the big kahuna.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Because in Ferris’s admirably risk-taking hands, this novel becomes so much more than simply another story of failed American dreams. Ferris has made himself into the leading writer of the American workplace: from the copywriters shuffling patiently towards redundancy in Then We Came to the End, to the baffled dentist of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. He understands both its absurdities (and this is another very funny book) and its rewards, but most of all he understands how it shapes modern America."—Jonathan Myerson, The Guardian
- "Ferris could write enthralling realist fiction in his sleep but it’s the ideas and formal ingenuity that really set this novel apart." —Max Liu, iNews (UK)
- "What gives this novel its special tenderness and torque – and later supplies a series of rug-pulling metafictional surprises – is its framing.... This novel is funny – Ferris has lovely comic timing and a great way with the sheer silliness of a family’s mental and physical bric-a-brac – and very moving.... This is the story of one disappointed idealist told by another, of one unreliable narrator described by another, and it is animated by filial love. Attention is being paid."—Sam Leith, The Guardian
- "The eponymous hero of Ferris’s fourth novel is an American Everyman. With multiple wives and children, and a catalogue of get-rich-quick schemes, Charlie Barnes is unwavering in his pursuit of the American Dream – until the 2008 recession and pancreatic cancer intervene. The narrator is Barnes’s son, a novelist whose narrative is inventive and witty, tender and wise. It’s a portrait of life, love and death, and much else besides."—Simon Humphreys, Daily Mail (UK)
- “Ferris has trained his crosshairs on the notion of second acts in American lives.”—Mark Athitakis, The Washington Post
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company