The narrative style of “A Thousand Pardons” uses a technique that is not my favorite. Jonathan Dee switches points of view mid-scene. You’re deep inside one character’s head, downloading their thoughts and sensations and then—zap—you’re inside the head of another character in the scene. No warning. No clue. No flags. You’re just, well, switched.
Dee doesn’t do this all the time, just here and there. Late in “A Thousand Pardons,” we are also inside the head of a new character—and I have a pet peeve against these late-novel introductions. I prefer writers who establish a rotation or mix of characters and stick to them. It’s a personal thing.
But who am I to argue with a writer whose work has reached the finals of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?
As with those two earlier novels, Dee is such an easy to reader to devour. You feel like you’re scooped up on a narrative feather and allowed to float along with his tale. There’s a quick, breezy quality to his work but I also feel like all his characters—and there are four strong ones in “A Thousand Pardons”—are plenty deep.
The set-up here is about big-city, big-risk, high-stakes Crisis Management on both the personal and corporate-public level.
Helen and Ben Armstead are in the middle of the “great drift” when the novel starts. “His life and her life were shaped liked parentheses that came closest to touching at the very beginning and the very end of every day…..They didn’t fight about anything—it wasn’t really their nature; instead she just watched her husband’s face turn slowly blank, and decided to attribute it to the demands of the job.”
When Ben follows his vices one night, the great drift becomes a full earthquake and soon Helen has moved out and their adopted Chinese teenage daughter, Sara, bounces back and forth, looking to find herself.
Most of the story belongs to Helen and her new role in a small, flailing PR agency that she manages to help revive with her new approach to, essentially, minimizing the spin factor and taking responsibility for whatever public mess has been made.
As in the two previous “P” novels, there’s a big concept at play here involving guilt and forgiveness. I have a hunch Dee wanted us to compare and contrast forgiveness between personal and corporate apologies, between personal and corporate guilt.
There were several elements in “A Thousand Pardons” that dropped this down a notch, for me, from “The Privileges,” including too much convenience (the car accident that gives her a bigger role at the PR firm; the childhood pal who is now a big movie star). The ending felt too neat. It’s fairly easy to see what’s coming.
Deep in this story are some challenging ideas about our collective willingness to forgive and forget and about the ability of businesses and public figures to control their message and either hide or reveal their essential character. More than anything, I rode along on the breeze of Dee’s narrative style and wondered about his magical touch, whether or not I agree with his narrative tricks.