A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812993219
Published March 12, 2013
Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was one of my favorite novels of 2010. So I was thrilled when I learned that Dee’s sixth novel, A Thousand Pardons, would be published this year.
Like The Privileges, this novel tells the story of a wealthy couple. But here the couple find themselves in the midst of a major disaster: The husband, Ben, has a total breakdown, eventually getting himself a DWI and an accusation of sexual harassment from a summer associate at his law firm. Helen, the main character and Ben’s wife, divorces her husband and must figure out a way to support herself and her daughter. Turns out she has a knack for PR. Specifically, she intuitively knows how to make powerful men (think, politicians embroiled in sex scandals) apologize. The story is a clever critique of our culture—both amusing and timely. Though A Thousand Pardons lacks the grace of The Privileges, I thought it was an entertaining read, and I enjoyed watching Helen’s reinvention.
Here’s an excerpt from an early scene, in which Helen must reason with a New York councilman whose violent actions have been caught on a surveillance camera. Helen’s the first one speaking, then the councilman.
“You will admit to everything. You will apologize to this young woman, by name, for your violent behavior. You will not use any phrases like ‘moment of weakness’ or ‘regrettable incident.’ You will apologize to your wife, and to your children, and to your parents if they are still alive . . . Basically, you will get up in front of the cameras and make an offering of yourself.”
Some of the redness drained from his face as she spoke; she could feel, as she’d felt before, the power her words gave her over him. “You really think that’s the play?” he said.
“That is the only play. To ask forgiveness. If you hold back in any way, the story lives. Let me ask you this: presumably you are a man with ambitions. What do you want to happen now? What is the outcome that will put those ambitions back on the track that your own mistakes threw them off of?”
He tipped back noiselessly in his chair. “I want to stay in office,” he said. “I want to be reelected. This was a stupid thing for me to have done, but it does not define me. It was a one-time thing, and I want to get away from it.”
“You will never get away from it,” Helen said. “But you can incorporate it into the narrative. You have to be sincere. You have to be completely abject, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way, and not attempt to defend yourself or your behavior in any way. No ‘I was drunk,’ no ‘she hit me first.’ You have to take, and answer, every question. You have to hold your temper when people try to get you lose it. Do you think you can do that?”
What are you reading today? Will you check out A Thousand Pardons in March?