Jonathan Dee's new novel, A Thousand Pardons, is not a successor to his Pulitzer-nominated breakout, The Privileges. It's a different sort of endeavor—less a chronicle of our times, less a monument, more a novel of ideas. A Thousand Pardons takes one concept, apology, very much as an organizing theme, and all of its plot lines are thrashed out on that axis.
Ben Armstead, a successful lawyer, lands on the front page of the New York Post with a combo sex scandal and DUI. As her husband self-destructs, Helen Armstead goes job hunting for virtually the first time in her life. She takes the train down from the Hudson Valley to Manhattan and, quite randomly, lands a job as “junior vice president” at a 10-cent PR firm. With no PR training, she advises her first client, a Chinese restaurateur accused of bad labor practices, to simply apologize, submit to the courts, and salvage what goodwill he can. He does. Business booms. Helen has surprised herself; she speaks almost like an oracle: “People are quick to judge,” she tells Mr. Chin, “they are quick to condemn, but that’s mostly because their ultimate desire is to forgive.”
Submit, even if you don't think you have done anything wrong. It sounds Christian, but it's also cynically good PR. Meanwhile Helen's adopted 8th-grade daughter, Sara, gives her mom hell, for the usual adolescent reasons. "Helen no longer wondered," after a certain point, "what exactly she had done wrong; she just accepted now that she had done something wrong, or many things, even if it was not given to her to know what those things were." For Dee, this is the way we live now: permanent guilt.
A Thousand Pardons executes several variations on this theme, laying itself out not in epic sequence, as The Privileges does, but as a round of crosscuts. Helen's disgraced husband, for example, never apologizes publicly. He does penance in the most secretive way: he quietly moves back into the Armstead's old house upstate, now emptied of furniture, and makes a humble living doing sub rosa desk work for a country lawyer. In an inversion of this plot line, a movie star named Hamilton Barth—with whom Helen went to high school—runs off with a publicity flack, blacks out, wakes up to find the publicist missing, and assumes a heavy mantle of guilt for a murder he didn't actually commit.
Public shaming triggers lots of great masculine plots, like Disgrace and Sabbath's Theater. Such books focus more on the shame, less on the publicity. A Thousand Pardons recalls a slightly different tradition, reaching back to The Scarlet Letter and coming to a sadistic climax in The Bonfire of the Vanities, where public shame is used to crystallize a society and make the cracks in public morality more apparent.
Yet A Thousand Pardons is ultimately not a big-canvas novel about public relations. Hamilton Barth, freaking out after his supposed crimes, contacts Helen. Rather than giving him her usual spiel and urging him to go public, she hides him—in the Rensselaer house with Ben. Meanwhile, at work, Helen has landed the ultimate client—the Catholic Church. But she loses interest in her press-conference confessionals. Without really brokering a reconciliation, she moves back in with Ben. And she lets Hamilton resume his life in Hollywood, never informing him that (as she eventually confirms) his crimes were imaginary. It's as if Helen has lost faith in forgiveness, has earned it too easily for her clients and feels that the men in her life need to be able to function without it.
James Wood called The Privileges a “savage” satire, and read the book as “one long skein of unreliable narration,” seeing the 2010 novel's super-rich protagonists as typical of an entire morally bankrupt class. But I think Dee liked his characters a bit better than Wood supposed, and that the narrative's bleak affirmation of their amoral choices presented a finer kind of irony than that of righteous condemnation.
In other words, though The Privileges may be read as a status novel, a wide-angle look at the skyline, it should probably be read more as a particular family portrait (one centered, as that novel makes clear, on unusual marital harmony). It's hard to make this case absolutely: The Privileges does such a good job of building a plausible world, resonant with timely observations and lessons about upwardly mobile striving, that any reader could come away feeling that a fat slice of uptown Manhattan had received the great American novel treatment.
A Thousand Pardons never looms so large. In its reticence it might disappoint some readers, but it also underlines Dee's basic decency. It's a novel about forgiveness exhaustion. Helen Armstead's trajectory, from passive victim to apology guru to contented observer, has little to do with a particular class. It's an old story, and a necessarily inconclusive one: in a way, like The Privileges, it's a story about what happens when an author refuses to judge his characters.