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.
Ferris' fifth and most dazzling book, which should appeal even to those who never warmed to the other four ... 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. He can’t help being hilarious, and this material can’t help being tough ... the book zigzags artfully through time, gradually amplifying and modifying each phase of Charlie’s life, in ways that keep it constantly surprising ... There are real people and real wounds buried in here somewhere ... Ferris’s prose remains taut and gorgeous, even when bleak ... 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.
Gradually, through sections headed Farce, Fiction and The Facts, the caustic humour that defined Ferris’s previous works is swapped for something grander, more lyrical, attempting to draw a parallel between the modern job of the author and the manner in which we curate our own lives ... The metatextual chaos that ensues, with everyone pitching in their own doubtful versions of 'the truth', is simultaneously narratively courageous and utterly hilarious ... Where it leaves the reader, however, feels special and unique, with the realisation that the value of a person lies not in their 'market worth', or the so-called truth of their story, but in the lies and fictions they tell themselves (and others) to live.
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 ... 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.