Public apology, private apocalypse: deconstructed by Jonathan Dee

Jonathan Dee’s new novel asks whether the big apology by a disgraced public figure is genuinely therapeutic, or just an empty ritual

Jonathan Dee: “There seems to be the faint ghost of a religious ceremony that hovers over this very secular ritual.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Jonathan Dee: “There seems to be the faint ghost of a religious ceremony that hovers over this very secular ritual.” Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Jul 6, 2013, 11:37

WE know the drill. Famous person makes public boo-boo, followed by even more public apology. There is humiliation. There is tut-tutting. There may even be tears. It is one of the most familiar phenomena of 21st-century life; and it forms the starting point for A Thousand Pardons, the new novel from the author of the Pulitzer-nominated bestseller The Privileges, Jonathan Dee.

The book, Dee says, was inspired by a combination of Tiger Woods and John Calvin. “The highly ritualised public apology by a disgraced public figure is a subject of great interest to me. There’s an instance every week or two in the US.

“It’s both of the moment, and ancient – or what passes for ancient in the US. It harks back to a much older form of American public life; that is to say, a public life dominated by religion. There seems to be the faint ghost of a religious ceremony that hovers over this very secular ritual – the penitence that has to follow certain rules, and that takes place before the congregation.”

A Thousand Pardons takes the reader through the front door of what appears to be a wholesome all-American family. Father Ben is a partner in a city law firm; mother Helen keeps high-maintenance house; daughter Sara, adopted, of Chinese ethnic origin, is smart, sassy and suitably rebellious.

But Dee is an expert at unravelling precisely such appearances as these. He did it in The Privileges, and before many pages of A Thousand Pardons have turned, Ben demolishes his marriage and his career in one spectacularly ill-judged swoop. Forced to get a job, Helen falls backwards into the PR business – where, it turns out, she is very, very good at getting men who have made spectacular boo-boos to do the public-apology thing.

Dee presents a cast of well-drawn characters, including some sharp-focus cameos that offer contrasting snapshots of men who are unhappy in their bodies: the teenage thrillseeker from a wealthy black family who takes up with Sara; the famous film star who can’t handle his celebrity lifestyle; the small-town lawyer who keeps a stash of whiskey in his filing cabinet so he doesn’t have to go home after work.

But it is the relationships, or the lack of them, within the nuclear Armstead family that cause the biggest explosions in the book.

Young Sara has immense power in the family, and wields it mercilessly. She is constantly and harshly judgmental where her parents are concerned: something of which, as the parent of a teenage daughter and a soccer coach besides, Dee admits he sees a good deal. “My daughter, of course,” he adds, “is an angel.”

If A Thousand Pardons sounds suspiciously close to commercial fiction, that’s because it is.

But while Dee flirts with several of the most beloved tropes of that genre – spurned wife who makes good; father and daughter who make friends – his gift for forensic detail and tart observation saves the day. Or does it? “This book has certain unities,” he admits. “It has a certain neatness to it, in the way that certain tropes of public relations might have a certain neatness to them.

“It’s a comedy, in some ways, in that everyone winds up sort of reunited. Sort of – more or less – happy ever after.” Happily for his readers, Dee is far more interested in the “sort of” and the “more or less” than the “happy ever after”.

This summer, he’s on tour with A Thousand Pardons – when we meet, he is in Irelandfor a reading at the Dalkey Book Festival. He says he enjoys this public aspect of being a writer. But then, he has learned from the masters.

As an aspiring young writer who moved to New York at the age of 22, he says he made a point of attending as many readings as he could. “They’re a bit like weddings,” he says, “in that they’re so much the same that the ones you remember most are the ones where something went wrong.”

Just such an event took place in a tiny basement space with a six-foot ceiling. On that memorable occasion, the first reader was the late David Foster Wallace. “He announced before he started reading,” Dee recalls, “that he had crippling stage fright, and that we would notice it when he started – that his hands would shake and his voice would shake and he would sweat a lot. He said, ‘You’re going to want to do something, so I’m just gonna tell you right now, it’s okay. I know I’m doing it.’ ”

Wallace was followed by William Vollmann “who, among other things, pulled out a starter pistol and fired it three times”. Now there’s a reading we all want to go to.

A Thousand Pardons is published by Corsair.