NBA and Booker finalist Ferris (To Rise Again at a Decent Hour) returns with a compassionate metafictional portrait of a flawed father and his crumbling notion of the America dream. Jake Barnes, the sincere but unreliable narrator, sets out to recount the life of his dad, Charlie Barnes, aka “Steady Boy,” a corporate gadfly and small business schemer who never made it through college. After multiple marriages, a few kids, and countless failed ideas for making it big—clowns and weedkiller, flying toupees—Steady Boy is working from his basement when he’s diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jake takes it upon himself to gather his older brother Jerry and his resentful half sister Marcy, both of whom believe Steady Boy is a fraud. Ferris makes the quotidian sing, such as Jake’s description of a “thundering, brain-clearing sneeze” while Steady Boy retrieves the morning paper from the curb. Ferris also flirts with a cheesy happy ending, until it becomes likely that this, too, is a fraud, prompting readers to wonder if Ferris is toying with them via Jake, who channels his namesake from The Sun Also Rises, he of the Lost Generation who no longer believes in anything. Despite the heavy subject matter, 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. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"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
Meet Charlie Barnes, known as "Steady Boy" to his friends: a failed inventor, failed businessman, perpetual dreamer, father to three (or four?) adult children, and, as of October 2008, almost certainly dying of pancreatic cancer. He lives with his fifth wife, Barbara Ledeux (not to be confused with his second wife, Barbara Lefurst), while under the watch of one of his sons, a middling novelist named Jake who's writing "a strictly factual account" of his father's life. But what is "factual" here is left to readers to work out; Jake offers up life-altering events and unforgettable family members that those involved later tell him never happened and don't exist. And so Ferris's fourth novel (after a short story collection, The Dinner Party), a metafictional counterlife presented within the frame of a family dramedy, becomes his most formally audacious since the first-person plural acrobatics of his debut, Then We Came to the End, and nearly as memorable. Like John Irving did for T.S. Garp, Ferris (through Jake) sends this perfectly ordinary man on a hero's journey, giving Steady Boy the happy ending he was unable to create for himself. VERDICT A sly and self-referential novel about the subjectivity of memoir, or a Franzenesque portrait of a dysfunctional American family. Take your pick.—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ
The near death of a would-be salesman, as told by his fabulist son.
"If my father was something of a joke, he was also a fucking colossus," maintains our narrator, Jake Barnes, son of Charlie Barnes, a man once known as Steady Boy. By the time Ferris' fourth novel opens in the fall of 2008, on the day Charlie receives a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the man has seen a lot of great business ideas go down in flames. The flying toupee, the herbicide, the clown franchise, the art school—not even the investment firm for retirees has panned out for this one-time employee of Bear Stearns. Though his son Jake, a successful novelist who pals around with the McEwans in the Cotswolds, claims he "promised the old man to tell it straight this time, to stick to the facts for once," the reader may have their doubts. And why? Well, among the mothers of Charlie's several children are wives named Sue Starter, Barbara LeFurst, Charley Proffit, Barbara Ledeux, and Evangeline—though Barbara Ledeux claims the first Barbara was invented only to torture her, and as the layers of myth and embellishment are peeled away in successive sections labeled Farce, Fiction, and The Facts, we have less and less reason to doubt her. And what about this Jake Barnes? After a while we notice he's told us very little about himself. "You've known you were a writer since you read Hemingway," says his dad. "It was Dostoyevsky…and I was twelve," replies the possibly misnamed Jake Barnes. Ferris' own award-winning debut, Then We Came to the End (2007), gets name-checked in the novel's final section: "Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid book." But that's Jake talking, not Joshua, and DeLillo said it first in Americana, and anyway, he's just kidding.
Good old-fashioned faux metafiction about death and family, full of panic and glee.