There’s a sweet heartache in connecting deeply with a work, feeling like the creator knows you.

It seems like being seen and touched, but of course it’s also a solo enterprise; I blink up from my book and realize I’m by myself. The words may touch some connection with the author, but as far as we understand physics, we don’t really get to touch back. It feels like a real connection, and maybe this proves Ram Dass right: “though we’ve lived our life totally involved in the world / We know / We know that we’re of the spirit.”

Still, that spirit-connection with a great mind has a lonely sadness to it. I feel like I was there for Karl Ove Knausgaard’s parenting and struggles, but I’ve yet to meet even another fan of his work. (I know, there must be a chat room, and I should find it).  I’ve tried to write about the intensity of experiencing his 3,600 page 6-part memoir, but only managed around the edges (see Knausgaard and cub scouts, Knausgaard and being an old dad, and Knausgaard and other life-changing arts including Caroline or Change… and as an aside to an aside, if you’ve never seen Caroline and you get a chance, take it! There’s a new production in New York running through January 29, 2022).

So I would like to tell you not about a life-changing book now, but about Joshua Ferris’s terrific and touching new novel A Calling for Charlie Barnes. About a late-20th-century American Dad (and the trappings of that ideal), it’s a timely book for me, though the chaotic chameleon Charlie, with 5 marriages and a football team’s worth of mostly disastrous careers isn’t at all like my dad.

Charlie is a striver and kind-hearted huckster, sure that if he could only get the right idea he would make it big. While the toupee-frisbee and a host of other ideas don’t take off, Joshua Ferris makes sure none of the ideas are more absurd than things that really did make it big. The way he’s so driven to be a provider and a “man” seems like a wound so many of our dads dealt with. Charlie is caught up one dream after another, which often tragically takes him away from what he loves. Sometimes it’s someone else’s delusions that do it; just as Charlie realizes how happy he is with his third wife, her conception of herself and how he’s not what she thought take her away.

The myriad breakups and split and blended families make for total mayhem, and as the book goes on we realize the narrator, trying hard to give unreliable Charlie his best case, may be going off the rails in a different way. The family dramas and traumas are heartbreaking, but Ferris keeps the story going fast and furious. In a hilarious segment one after another family member comes to the narrator (who is Charlie’s son, Jake Barnes) with their complaints about his telling so far. One stepsister who was combined with another character demands to be included, and the narrator tries to circle back and clarify a few things, but the growing hall-of-mirrors telling piles up in a metafiction car crash that really moved me.

How else to describe how much you love someone than to try to get your story around all of their lives, foibles, and mistakes? A great read.

(You can see my reading list with its shameful dose of Murder Mysteries to get through the pandemic on my books page.)