Named a best book of the year by NPR, Vogue, and the New York Times Book Review, the hilarious and profound new novel from National Book Award finalist Joshua Ferris is “a fine American novel about family, love, and a decent but flawed man trying to be better" (Stephen King).
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.
Then, against all odds, something goes right for a change: Charlie is granted a second act. With help from his storyteller son, he surveys the facts of his life and finds his true calling where he least expects it—in a sacrifice that redounds with selflessness and love—at last becoming the man his son always knew he could be.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a profound and tender portrait of a man whose desperate need to be loved is his downfall, and a brutally funny account of how that love is ultimately earned.
“A masterpiece that shines a revealing light on both family and fiction itself.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
About the Author
Joshua Ferris is the author of three previous novels, Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and a collection of stories, The Dinner Party. He was a finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was named one of The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" writers in 2010. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and Best American Short Stories. He lives in New York.
“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...Ferris's most daring experiment...Ferris’s prose remains taut and gorgeous, even when bleak. Also 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.” —Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Dazzling…There's no shortage of make-believe in A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Ferris' fifth, and best, book. A Calling for Charlie Barnes wears its metafictional heart on its sleeve, but as smart as it is, Ferris never shows any signs of falling in love with his own cleverness. Literary experiments without warmth tend to fall flat for most readers, but Ferris' novel is — remarkably, given its flawed subject — full of heart...In his previous works, Ferris has proved that he's one of the best American authors of comic fiction working today. His humor is on full display with A Calling for Charlie Barnes, but so are his intelligence and compassion; it's a masterpiece that shines a revealing light on both family and fiction itself.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
"Joshua Ferris is one of our best writers, and A Calling for Charlie Barnes is wonderful: fast and deep, urgent and brilliant. Ingeniously written, it had me up reading late into the night. A hilarious, intimate, and scathing takedown of so many American vanities."—Dana Spiotta, author of Wayward
“Dazzling. Mind-blowing. About as much fun as you can have without risking arrest.”—Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and Chances Are…
"If Augie March was a “Columbus of the near-at-hand,” Charlie Barnes is a whole America: a dreaming, scheming paterfamilias forever “expanding out to the coasts” and outstripping whatever inconvenient facts or exuberant fictions might hope to contain him. Is he for real? Are any of us? This much is certain: Funny, moving, and formally a work of genius, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is quite literally the book Joshua Ferris was born to write."—Garth Risk Hallberg, author of City on Fire
“With meticulous, wry prose and a dash of self-effacing metafiction, Joshua Ferris delves deeply into the simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary life of Charlie Barnes, a man with as much failure in him as found in our bankrupted country. This novel, about dentures and toupees and all the ways we disguise ourselves from our intimates, is at its large heart a moving portrait of a father and son to rival the best of Roth.”—Teddy Wayne, author of Apartment
"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. For all of our hope, the novel asks, how much can we actually alter about ourselves, not to mention the world we’ve been hurled into? 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.”—Sam Lipsyte, The New York Times Book Review
"Ferris’s new novel is meta-narrated by Jake Barnes, a novelist who turns his father Charlie’s life into a hall of mirrors for reasons that emerge over time. Ferris has said that Charlie Barnes is modeled on his own father, who died in 2014. The book zigzags artfully through time, gradually amplifying and modifying each phase of Charlie’s life, in ways that keep it constantly surprising. This is a more tender novel than Ferris’s others, but it is also funny from start to finish. Our reviewer Janet Maslin says this is Ferris’s 'most dazzling' book, and that he has 'risen to the top of his game.'"—New York Times Editors' Choice
"With A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Ferris has written his finest novel yet: a fabulist yarn about a flawed father in the twilight of his life, whose numerous get-rich-quick schemes and busted marriages have vaulted the American Dream forever out of his reach. Our narrator is Jake Barnes, Charlie’s son, whose earnest but unreliable memories of his father call the narrative’s very fabric into question: how can we rightly remember those closest to us? Does our intimacy blot out the truth? By turns lively, laugh-out-loud funny, and tear-jerking, this is Ferris at the height of his powers."—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire
“A poignant, bitingly funny exploration of how a life that’s riddled with defeat may turn out, after all, to be profoundly meaningful. Ferris’ control of his own narrative is impeccable, but that doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t be prepared for the frequent wicked curveballs he delivers with evident zest. A Calling for Charlie Barnes has plot twists as manifold as its protagonist’s cruelly dashed dreams, but when Steady Boy’s story reaches its end, it’s a reminder of how little we know about the ones we love and the fact that even the humblest life story encompasses unfathomable depths.”—BookPage
“Funny and sweet, Ferris’s novel is narrated by Jake Barnes, the son of the title character and a successful author, who tells the story of his flawed dad’s, shall we say, colorful, life. So many failed business ideas. Many, many ex-wives. A cancer diagnosis. A second act. Love, death and family? We’re in.” —CNN
"A deeply funny, very moving book about that most pivotal and permanent of destinations: death. Ferris's hijinks are serious; his play is profound. There is magic in these pages."—Ayad Akhtar, author of Homeland Elegies
“Like the best comedy, A Calling for Charlie Barnes has its fair share of angst. Death (or is it vanity?) hovers over a story of petty hustles and towering ambitions, all of it rendered with the comic ferocity that is Ferris's great gift. You could fill the back of a pickup truck with novels about sons trying to understand their father, but you'll not find another one as suave and daring as this one, warm and furious, and unfailingly funny.”—Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love
“Charlie Barnes will go down as one of the great characters in contemporary literature, a man both bigger than life and smaller than his own aspirations, a feckless optimist with a gambler's heart. Joshua Ferris's sly, funny, unexpectedly moving novel is a wholly original take on family dysfunction, a clear-eyed look at the stories we tell ourselves about the people who made us.”—Jennifer Haigh, author of Heat and Light
“Brilliant, funny, heartbreaking--Ferris has taken the Updike-Roth model and set it spinning with masterly narrative fireworks. Family, memory, ambition and death, all told with dervishing glee. Not just a daredevil of a novel, but something truly new.”—Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less
“This charming and witty novel tells a wholly inventive modern American story.” —Entertainment Weekly
"For those who fell in love with Joshua Ferris’s debut, Then We Came to the End (me, I did), A Calling for Charlie Barnes feels like something of a return to the comic-existential themes of that first book: What is work, and why do we do it? Rather than an office, the setting here is Charlie Barnes’s basement, where he’s been camped out for several years trying to get his long-floundering money-management business to take off (a fitting transformation of the office architecture after a year-plus of WFH). Except the runway for his floundering business has been so long that it seems like he may forever occupy this state of perpetual taxi. But then some news: Charlie is dying of cancer—or at least he thinks it’s likely that he is—and he begins to ponder just how he’s spent the minutes and years and decades of his life. What follows is a quasi-stream-of-consciousness romp through his love affairs and misadventures."—Vogue
“A profound and tender portrait of a man whose desperate need to be loved is his downfall, and a brutally funny account of how that love is ultimately earned.”—Book Reporter
"A magnificent novel, one that keeps re-inventing itself as it goes: a master class both in technique and in emotional acuity. Ferris is pretty much peerless as a sentence-writer, and when he takes on father-son dynamics — the love, the grief, the worship, the anger — those sentences go in like daggers. Charlie Barnes clears the very high bar of being Ferris's best book.”—Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges
"Ferris writes with an exuberant style that propels the reader... as A Calling for Charlie Barnes shows, fiction is an art form deliberately used to get to a deeper truth than fact. It’s not a denial of reality, but a more serious journey into it."—The Boston Globe
“Ferris does something fascinating in this book… a tour de force.” —Marissa Moss, New York Journal of Books
“A riotous bildungsroman, its delivery system a hilariously unreliable narrator.”—Shelf Awareness
“With a Rothian sense of humor and equally slippery relationship to fiction and fact, A Calling for Charlie Barnes is a return to form for the author.”—Buzzfeed News
“It's a touching, thought-provoking story about family, duty, and the difficult ways in which we all shape our own history.” —Town & Country
“Ferris is one of the master chroniclers of our declining American empire and spirit—his special gift is delivering the bad news with both laughs and an enormous amount of empathy that, at his best, recalls the work of Emerson and Thoreau.”—The Millions
“A compassionate, metafictional portrait of a flawed father and his crumbling notion of the American dream… The story is often quite funny and the themes at its core are those that will forever preoccupy humankind: purpose and death, but, mostly, love. Of Ferris’s work, this is the big kahuna.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Because in Ferris’s admirably risk-taking hands, this novel becomes so much more than simply another story of failed American dreams. Ferris has made himself into the leading writer of the American workplace: from the copywriters shuffling patiently towards redundancy in Then We Came to the End, to the baffled dentist of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. He understands both its absurdities (and this is another very funny book) and its rewards, but most of all he understands how it shapes modern America."—Jonathan Myerson, The Guardian
"Ferris could write enthralling realist fiction in his sleep but it’s the ideas and formal ingenuity that really set this novel apart." —Max Liu, iNews (UK)
"What gives this novel its special tenderness and torque – and later supplies a series of rug-pulling metafictional surprises – is its framing.... 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.... 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."—Sam Leith, The Guardian
"The eponymous hero of Ferris’s fourth novel is an American Everyman. With multiple wives and children, and a catalogue of get-rich-quick schemes, Charlie Barnes is unwavering in his pursuit of the American Dream – until the 2008 recession and pancreatic cancer intervene. The narrator is Barnes’s son, a novelist whose narrative is inventive and witty, tender and wise. It’s a portrait of life, love and death, and much else besides."—Simon Humphreys, Daily Mail (UK)
“Ferris has trained his crosshairs on the notion of second acts in American lives.”—Mark Athitakis, The Washington Post