Allow me to apologize. Please. It seems the thing to do these days, with public confession and apology such regular parts of our cultural landscape that the specifics of each scandal blur. Was it the politician, the military leader, the golfer, or the bicycling star, undone by power, money or sex? Yet so often the fallen hero rehabilitates himself and returns to the embrace of a public eager to forgive. And, with the right public relations team, almost any misstep can become the first step on the road to redemption.
"A THOUSAND PARDONS"
By Jonathan Dee
Random House ($26).
In his sixth novel, "A Thousand Pardons," Jonathan Dee rides the zeitgeist of the golden age of public disclosure and orchestrated apologies, again offering a "ripped from the headlines" tale. In his previous novel, "The Privileges" (a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize), published not long after the collapse of several high-flying Wall Street firms and hedge funds, Mr. Dee illuminated an especially avaricious time and place, through the tale of a young married couple with no moral compass.
"A Thousand Pardons" also focuses on a "lost" couple, Ben and Helen Armstead, living in a suburb of New York City with their adopted adolescent daughter. Ben is a successful lawyer in the city; Helen is a stay-at-home mom. Their 18-year marriage has withered to the point where they communicate only in their marriage counselor's office. At their last session, Ben tearfully describes his sense of having lived every day before, and confesses that he is "bored to near panic by my home and my work and my wife and my daughter."
It doesn't take long for Ben to engineer his escape from the tedium of his life, through the most predictable route: He recklessly pursues a comely summer associate at his law firm. Their sad and creepy tryst in a hotel room ends with Ben being beaten by the woman's boyfriend, soon followed by criminal charges of sexual assault and DWI, a court-ordered stay in a rehab facility and 28-day jail sentence, and dismissal from the law firm.
Helen now needs a job, and despite having last worked in sales at Ralph Lauren 14 years earlier, she immediately gets several interviews and a job offer at a struggling public relations firm. (Apparently Mr. Dee has not been in the job market for a while.) In a too-convenient turn of events, Helen's boss is killed in an accident, and she takes over running the company, having discovered an almost mystical vocation for "apology wrangling." She convinces arrogant men to accept the blame for whatever may have gone wrong, and apologize -- "total submission."
In the blink of an eye, Helen is recruited to a major PR firm to join their Crisis Management team. The depiction of the firm's maneuverings in the slippery realm of image creation and spin provides some of the best parts of this frequently amusing book. However, on the whole, the novel is disappointingly superficial -- missing an opportunity to explore the fascinating phenomenon of public repentance and forgiveness in any thoughtful way.
"A Thousand Pardons" is a thin book, on several levels. Only 214 pages, it nevertheless runs out of steam and coasts to an unconvincing ending. There is no examination of why Helen's tactic -- admit everything, offer no defense, ask for forgiveness -- works, or much evidence that it actually does. Not even Helen understands; she just has "faith," perhaps drawing on her Catholic school training to bring the ritual of confession to the secular and public arena.
This lack of depth is especially apparent in the depiction of a troubled A-list movie star prone to benders and blackouts. This cardboard character serves mainly as a hinge to awkwardly attach a mystery plot line to the story, and to show Helen masterfully managing another crisis. It's far-fetched and a bit silly.
I'm sorry to say that my high hopes for this book were not met. Really sorry. Really.
Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (firstname.lastname@example.org).