Tuesday, June 4, 2013
The Humanity Project
Our politicians were no help at all. We feared those people who we believed meant to do us harm, although such fears fluctuated along with the most recent headlines. There were people who hated us with ancient, inexplicable and undying hatreds. They might look harmless enough, unexceptional, but without warning, they might precipitate some majestic destruction that we could not imagine or know.
Against this backdrop, we meet a cast of misfits. Their individual stories are woven into interlocking chapters, each chapter ending with a cliff-hanger. Sean, for example, father of the teenage Connor, is barely making ends meet in this depressed economy. As a carpenter and handyman, he can no longer find work and is struggling to pay the rent. He reminds this reader of Richard Russo's fictional and real-life father--a ne'er-do-well most comfortable in a bar. Like many people with no savings and no health insurance, he is one step from disaster. His poor judgment in women and his attempt at a one-night-stand have consequences not only for him but for Connor. But despite his hard luck, Sean is ever optimistic and a source of humorous insights.
Similarly, Art is an under-employed professor whose immaturity has led to divorce. He is a better-educated, wealthier version of Sean. But whereas Sean has tried to be a decent father, Art has lived his life avoiding the responsibilities of parenthood. Pressured by his ex-wife into allowing his 15 year old daughter, Linnea, to live with him, Art is now over his head. She is a troubled and manipulative teen coping with the aftershock of a high school shooting. Not surprisingly, she finds in Connor a kindred spirit. Both are outsiders in the affluent, sheltered world of this California suburb. Both have fathers who are ineffectual bumblers with good intentions dimmed by poor judgment.
Then there is Christie, Art's neighbor. Christie is a nurse working at a public health facility. She is portrayed as a rather cold young woman who remains aloof from the suffering and poverty surrounding her professional life. She studies Buddhism and meditates in the hope of finding inner peace. Sean is one of her patients at the clinic. Likewise, Mrs. Foster, a wealthy and quite batty elderly woman, is a former patient from Christie's days as a home health-care nurse. Mrs. Foster's request to set up a foundation to help humanity (The Humanity Project) provides another element of the satire and comedy that pervade the book. Her $5,000,000 bequest to the foundation is set up under the assumption that one can pay people to do good. Other minor characters, such as Mrs. Foster's daughter and attorney, provide comic relief as well.
Jean Thompson's uses satire as she pokes fun at donors, lawyers, and whoever else takes himself too seriously. Mrs. Foster's house of feral cats--most beyond rehabilitation--and her broad intent on saving humanity from itself adds levity to hardships of Dickensian proportions. The author's serious commentary on everything from environmental carelessness to economic downfall is seamlessly embedded into an engaging plot.
The Humanity Project satisfies on many levels. First, the cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter draw the reader further into the tapestry of the characters' lives. It is a truly gifted writer who has the ability to create characters who are unlikeable yet sympathetic Thompson has, once again, proven herself to be a writer par excellence.
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