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
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.”