For his follow-up to the masterful 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Privileges, Jonathan Dee attempts to breed The Good Wife and Scandal with the suburban ennui of a Tom Perrotta novel. And for most of A Thousand Pardons, it looks like he’s going to succeed.
Ben Armstead hates his upper-middle-class existence — wife, house, couples therapy — so much that he’s determined to take a blowtorch to it. That blowtorch arrives in the form of a comely summer intern at his New York City law office, and in short order Ben faces a lawsuit, an arrest for DUI, jail time, and a divorce from his wife, Helen, who decides that Tammy ”Stand by Your Man” Wynette’s advice is bunk. Broke and unable to withstand the pitying stares of her community, Helen lands a job at a crisis-management firm in New York City — where it turns out she’s got a knack for making powerful people apologize for their misdeeds (everyone, that is, except her husband) — and moves there with the couple’s adopted daughter, Sara. Dee bounds gracefully among Helen’s, Ben’s, and Sara’s points of view as they try to reassemble their lives. Their stories feel honest, and the prose is beautiful.
Then, without warning, Dee suddenly plops his characters into an entirely different novel — a slapstick mystery involving a rugged, reclusive alcoholic actor from Helen’s hometown who may have killed his one-night stand. From there the novel jerks to an unsatisfying, hurried conclusion, as if Dee is trying to blurt out his final chapter before an awards-show orchestra drowns him out. He has some keen insights into the power of apology, but it’s awfully hard to forgive him for not sticking his ending. B-
”Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.”