Americans follow a familiar script when a powerful man falls from grace. We’re shocked, though news of such-and-such tweeting his private parts or engaging in an affair may secretly fill us with glee—especially when he’s forced to confess after a strategy of “deny, deny, deny.” Is it human nature to relish watching the train wreck of a public collapse? In Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons, his first novel since 2010’s The Privileges (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), we see another side of this story. It is human nature to forgive—if only the transgressors will let us.
Helen Armstead finds herself in a sticky situation after Ben, her corporate-lawyer husband, is accused of sexual assault and driving while intoxicated. He’s disbarred and checked into rehab, and Helen, a stay-at-home mom, has to find a way to support her family. She gets a job at a struggling public relations firm in New York City and discovers an untapped talent: She can turn the tide of a PR nightmare by making men apologize. By ’fessing up, the men are in charge of their own narratives.
One conversation Helen has with a client—an executive at a grocery store chain—underscores her intuitive philosophy. The grocery store is in deep trouble when a young mother claims she bought a bunch of bananas stuffed with razor blades. Naturally, the manager is indignant; he thinks the mom planted the razors. But Helen implores him to apologize: “If you keep denying what they believe, that just strengthens their suspicion. You’re already guilty in their minds.” If the man owns the accusations, then he’s the one “making the choices that drive the story from that point forward,” Helen says. This is because the public’s “ultimate desire is to forgive.”
The story also follows Ben as he attempts to rebuild his life, the Armsteads’ daughter as she attempts to rebel and a movie star in need of Helen’s services. However, Dee is at his amusing and clever best when he homes in on Helen and her no-nonsense approach to public relations (and personal survival). Readers will root for her success and evaluate how their own opinions have been shaped by some astute public relations.
Read a Q&A with Jonathan Dee for A Thousand Pardons.