The Korea Herald


Book offers glimmers of redemption

By Claire Lee

Published : May 2, 2013 - 19:51

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The Humanity Project
By Jean Thompson 
(Blue Rider Press)

My friend Beth says that we are all “dented cereal boxes.” Even the best among us occasionally think dark thoughts, make bad decisions, hurt the people we love and turn a blind eye to the suffering of others. With godlike power, Jean Thompson, author of “The Humanity Project,” throws her dented (and entirely recognizable) characters into the crucible of the American recession to reveal what it means to be human: flawed, and yet somehow worthy of redemption that comes in glimmers instead of bursts.

Although this is Thompson’s sixth novel, she has developed a league of followers (David Sedaris among them) as a writer of short stories that chronicle the human condition with psychological insight and humor. Here, as in her previous novel, “The Year We Left Home,” she relies on her mastery of the short form to construct a broader, kaleidoscopic narrative through a series of character-based vignettes.

Sean, a Marin County carpenter and single dad, finds himself beating his head “against the brick wall of the world.” He’s out of work, his son is worried about their sick dog, and his body is banged up from years of physical labor. He’s not righteous like the biblical Job, he’s just a guy trying to get by.

“It wasn’t the life he’d planned for himself, but it was the life he’d grown used to, it had its comforts, and it would be a sad and low-down thing if he got kicked out of it.” That’s exactly what happens when he responds to a Craigslist personal ad that goes spectacularly wrong and he ends up in spiritual, personal and economic free-fall.

Linnea, a teenager in Ohio, is also kicked from one flawed life into a new one when a school shooter bursts into the high school bathroom where she’s fighting with her despised stepsister, and she finds herself “at the intersection of crazy and real.”

The trauma of the shooting leaves her so understandably troubled that she’s sent to Marin to live with her absentee father, Art, “as a kind of test drive, an exile, a visit of uncertain length.” Art, an adjunct English teacher/sci-fi screenplay writer, is hardly equipped for this test of sudden parenting: His apartment is a mess, he doesn’t make much money, and his only friend is Christie, an attractive nurse upstairs. Christie likes to keep her distance. She thinks, “If you lived around other people, you had to expect them to keep bumping up against your boundaries. You just wished they wouldn’t leave so many footprints.”

Despite her quiet cynicism, people think Christie is a do-gooder, a role she reluctantly assumes in an official capacity as head of a charitable nonprofit with an uncertain mission called The Humanity Project. The foundation is the brainchild of Mrs. Foster, a wealthy widow who thinks that her money can solve other people’s problems. Her daughter isn’t so sure. She thinks that all of her mother’s money will be “gobbled up like flakes of fish food.”

Thompson resists the kind of heavy-handed moralizing one might expect in a novel that takes humanity as its subject. It doesn’t really matter if the characters try to fix the world or if they keep screwing up. Grace comes from the ways in which their interactions with others reveal, and remind them of, their shared human condition, while they continue to believe in a better life.

Christie observes that people “wanted stories of affirmation and purpose, and hardships overcome. They wanted to believe in happy endings in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”