“Attention must be paid.” The standout line in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – the anguished admonishment of Linda Loman that her husband’s suffering deserves the dignity of being noticed – seems to stand as an invisible epigraph to Joshua Ferris’s tragicomic fourth novel. The titular Charlie Barnes is, like Willy Loman, what the last US president would have identified as a loser; a man in his declining years who has chased the so-called American Dream and ended up choking on its exhaust fumes. When we meet him, it is 2008 and he is in his “scuffed and tired home” in an unlovely suburb of Chicago. He has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and believes he has just weeks to live. Thrilled, in his unselfaware way, with the opportunity to demand others pity him as much as he pities himself, he’s ringing old business associates to rub his diagnosis in their faces, and calling his scattered brood of semi-estranged children demanding they visit. Then he discovers he doesn’t have pancreatic cancer after all. He can’t even get his final act right.
Unlike Willy Loman, Charlie – sarcastically nicknamed “Steady Boy” – is a creature of the age of entrepreneurialism; not a career-long wage slave but someone who has put himself in debt to pursue chimera after chimera. He hoped to revolutionise asset management for elderly people and went broke. There was a proprietary weedkiller called “Endopalm-T”, whose excellent toxicity wasn’t confined to its effect on plants; a doomed entertainment franchise called “Clown In Your Town”; a novelty Frisbee in the shape of a flying toupee called the “Doolander”, which didn’t land with the public.
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 hoped to make a killing, become a household name, live for ever. Well, he would not, now. That was just a done deal.
We need to stop calling him Steady Boy.
Yet in all these schemes there was something not just egotistical or acquisitive, but a thread of utopianism. The Doolander was inspired by the joy of a spontaneous toupee accident “shortly after Nixon’s second inauguaration”; in financial services he wanted to get rich by giving the customer a fairer deal. But his personal disappointment has curdled over the years into moral outrage. As the unfolding financial crisis exposes Wall Street’s chiselling and fraud, he rails against the rottenness of the whole system. This isn’t an overtly political novel, or state of the nation novel – it’s a family story – but history is its background music.
Now here’s Charlie, past the age of new beginnings, living in palookaville with his basement cluttered by bales of marketing materials for long-defunct businesses. His personal life, too, is a mess. His career has been shaped not only by the vain dream of coast-to-coast success, but by – at least in youth – a romantic nature and an uncontrollable libido. His fifth marriage is a happy one. His wife, Barbara, is devoted to him; but his children from his previous marriages hate her (or, at least, transfer their anger at him into disdain for her) and he’s powerless to bring them together.
What gives this novel its special tenderness and torque – and later supplies a series of rug-pulling metafictional surprises – is its framing. We are reading what we are told (sending up all sorts of red flags) is the “strictly factual” account of Charlie’s life, as narrated by his youngest son, Jake, a successful novelist who boasts of staying with Ian McEwan in the Cotswolds. As Jake wanly observes, his father has never seen the point of his career writing fiction; yet the techniques of fiction are everywhere in the way Charlie Barnes shaped his own life.
Jake adores his father: sees him clearly with all his faults and idiosyncrasies, or seems to, but worships him nevertheless. Charlie may be a fraud, a fool, a faithless husband and a failure, but he is a decent human being. 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. At times it tips over into outright sentimentality, only for that to emerge as part of the book’s design; a weakness not of Ferris’s but of Jake Barnes. 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.
• A Calling for Charlie Barnes is published by Viking (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.