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In Jonathan Dee's 'A Thousand Pardons,' to ask for forgiveness is divine -- or, at least, expedient

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http://www.cleveland.com - To err is human, to ask for forgiveness, divine -- and, if it doesn't quite rise to the divine, then asking for forgiveness is at the very least expedient. That's the premise of the slick, cynical "A Thousand Pardons," the new novel from Jonathan Dee, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his last novel, "The Privileges."



The humans who populate Dee's novel are the descendants of the Johns Updike and Cheever, prosperous yet needy suburbanites whose vague unhappiness with what they thought they wanted drives them to err spectacularly, and publicly.



The first spectacular screw-up comes courtesy of Ben Armstead, a partner in a New York law firm who describes his malaise in one of the weekly marriage-therapy sessions that he and his wife, Helen, call "Date Night," to hide their troubles from their sullen teenage daughter.



"Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified?" he asks. "That is what it's like for me every day. That is what it's like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It's like a . . . death sentence, coming back to that house every night. I mean, no offense."



It's hard to dislike a writer who adds "no offense" to the end of a soul-destroying marital rant. But while Dee's writing, especially his dialogue, often exhibits that fillip of sharp-edged wit, the novel feels oddly flabby and disposable. Like Ben, it seems to be bored with itself.



Ben's existential crisis -- he refuses to call it a midlife crisis -- ends in the usual way: He becomes infatuated with a summer associate at the firm, a careerist who sees his weakness as her future. Her boyfriend catches them at a hotel, which leads to a beating, which leads to drinking heavily and driving, which leads to jail, a rape charge, rehab and divorce.

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