Midway into Jonathan Dee’s new novel A Thousand Pardons, one begins to imagine a lunchtime scene at a fashionable eatery in Midtown Manhattan. Dee is seated at a linen-topped table with his agent and editor and maybe some publishing executives wanting to hang out with a guy who nearly won a Pulitzer with his last book. Drinks have been served, menus whisked away, and one of the publishing execs has just asked Dee what his new novel is about. If his jacket photo is any guide, Dee is a dapper-looking dude, all upswept silver hair and brainiac black-frame glasses, and one imagines him settling back, waiting for the table to quiet and then unfurling a sly, smirky smile. “This book,” he tells them, “is about an ordinary woman with just one extraordinary talent: she can make powerful men say they’re sorry.”
There is a silence around the table, just long enough for a few quick subterranean glances, and then, as one, they all breathe a great sigh of relief. Okay, cool, their beaming faces seem to say as they dive back into their midday martinis, this one’s in the bag.
I have no idea, of course, if that is how it went down with Dee’s much-anticipated follow-up to his 2010 Pulitzer-finalist novel The Privileges, but A Thousand Pardons certainly reads like a book sold on a really cool twenty-word sentence. The Privileges, one of the best books about haute New York City since Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis vanished down their separate rabbit holes in the 1990s, daringly failed to punish its morally corrupt private equity fund manager hero. The PE guy, Adam Morey, racks up millions in illicit profits through an insider-trading scam, not because he needs the cash, but just because he feels it is his due, and instead of being punished as any villain in a well-behaved modern novel should, he gets away with it. His daughter is a hot mess and his son is seriously weird, but Adam goes on to form a charitable foundation and bask in the glow of his accomplishments.
Dee didn’t seem to know quite what to do with a moral novel that doesn’t punish its morally bankrupt hero – the book sort of peters out at the end – but coming as it did on the heels of the financial crisis, The Privileges, which one begins to slowly realize is in fact an extremely devious and subtle satire, put its finger on how a very small segment of the richest of the rich New Yorkers see themselves as made heroic by the sheer monstrousness of their crimes.
One can’t help thinking that between that book and his new one, someone – maybe one of those publishing execs, maybe Dee himself – quietly suggested that maybe this time he should consider a more traditional, better-behaved dramatic structure. As a result, A Thousand Pardons, though a smart, fun, engaging read, never catches the zeitgeist in the way one might expect from its high-concept premise.
Part of the problem may be that Dee, a gifted stylist equipped with a finely calibrated emotional radar, isn’t particularly well suited to writing high-concept novels. To give his heroine, Helen Armstead, a chance to show off her extraordinary talents, Dee must first subject her to a series of unfortunate events of the kind that only happen in novels and on the front pages of cheap tabloid newspapers. Her husband Ben, catatonically bored with Helen and his life as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, embarks on an entirely one-sided love affair with “a short, blond, gregarious, almost comically well-built” summer intern. He rents a hotel room, whisks her up there, and asks her to take off all her clothes in exchange for not having to have sex with him. She does so, but on their way out of the hotel room Ben is beaten to a pulp by the girl’s boyfriend, who has followed them to the hotel, and Ben, after some drunken misadventures behind the wheel of his car, is charged with attempted sexual assault.
All this takes fewer than twenty pages, and though it is narrated with Dee’s characteristic deftness, it has the feel of a cable TV pilot, not the opening chapter of a literary novel. I even cast it in my mind, and became half-convinced that if I could just get Alison Janney to commit to play Helen, I could have it on HBO in time for the fall season. Meanwhile, I had the rest of a novel to read. Helen, who has been a willing doormat to Ben and their adopted daughter, Sara, through many years of marriage, is forced to look for work, and ends up, as luck and plot contrivance would have it, in the offices of a failing public relations firm, where Helen displays her undiscovered talent for getting arrogant men to apologize.
Perhaps you begin to see the problem here. In her daily life, Helen cannot stand up to anyone, not Ben, not her crabby teenage daughter, not even the transparently incompetent marital therapist she and Ben go to try to save their unsalvageable marriage. Helen is a wilted leaf carried upon the surface of the novel’s plot until all of a sudden there she is telling the angry owner of a Chinese restaurant facing an ugly labor dispute with his fresh-off-the-boat deliverymen that what he needs to do is apologize. “What will I say?” the understandably shocked owner asks.
“You will say that you are sorry, Mr. Chin,” Helen said. “Without getting into specifics, you will apologize, and ask your customers and the people of New York for their forgiveness. And they will give it to you. They want to. People are quick to judge, Mr. Chin, they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”
Whah? Where was this cocky bulldozer of a woman with x-ray vision into the human psyche for the first 37 pages of this novel? That this may not be the best PR advice – you can see what a quick apology did for Eliot Spitzer, who may be free to run for public office again by, oh, 2413 – is less important than how little it seems to have to do with the character Dee seems to be writing about. Helen, the character, is a panicky, under-confident woman overwhelmed by the emotional mess that life has thrown her way. Helen, the character device, is but a mouthpiece for what appears to be an authorial riff on the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis in which we all wanted someone to call the banking titans to account for driving the economy into a ditch and got instead the prosecution of poor, muddling Bernie Maddoff for his absurdly amateurish Ponzi scheme.
In truth, after a couple more of these speaking-truth-to-power moments, Dee loses interest in his high-concept premise and returns to his more natural turf of low-concept, emotionally resonant literary fiction. Helen is hired by “the sixth largest PR agency in the world” whose chairman, in a charmingly improbable scene, visits Helen’s tiny office to tell her she has “an extraordinary gift.” Anyone expecting a sort of middle-aged mom’s version of Spiderman, in which drab ex-housewife Helen Armstead dons a bespoke suit and browbeats America’s corporate villains into abject apology, will be disappointed to learn that by this point less than halfway through the book Helen has performed her last truly successful act of PR derring-do.
What the reader gets instead, in the interstices of Dee’s increasingly busy plot, are a series of brief but gorgeously rendered snapshots of daily life in New York in the early 2010s. Sara, Helen’s Chinese-born daughter, at sea in the roiling waters of a Manhattan middle school, hooks up with a wealthy, troubled black kid whose identity issues mirror her own. This subplot bears only the most tangential relation to the central one, but these scenes of two misbegotten kids in the process of inventing workable identities for themselves are in their quiet way some of the strongest in the book.
This question of identity – who are we without our stories of ourselves? – seems to be the true theme of not just A Thousand Pardons, but The Privileges as well. In that book, Adam Morey is not at all who he purports to be, but his success in life is not so much that he gets away with a great crime, but that he and his adoring wife manage to convince themselves that the outer lie is the truth. It’s not that they pretend to themselves that Adam has never stolen, but that by their twisted logic, so attuned to the pervasive morality of New York in the 2000s, a great crime if committed for the right reasons is itself virtuous.
In A Thousand Pardons, Dee has tried again to ride the zeitgeist, but unlike in The Privileges where character and theme worked hand-in-glove, Helen Armstead is too human to fit neatly into the plot he seems to have envisioned for her. The book is by no means a failure. While A Thousand Pardons tripped this reader’s bullshit detector more than once, it is also propulsively readable for long stretches at a time. But readers will have to wait for the book that does for New York in the 2010s that The Privileges did for the city in the 2000s.