Hardship and hope in Jean Thompson's new novel

Jean Thompson’s latest novel weighs heavy on the heart. The haunting question she raises — is there any way to save, or at least improve the fate of, humanity? — is evocative, and her answers, often colored by a smart, dark humor, can be troubling. Author of five other novels and five story collections that examine unsettling truths about human nature and the world around us, she is not a writer to raise false hope amid calamity.

In her last novel, the transcendent The Year We Left Home, Thompson mined 30 years of American economic, cultural and sociological history through the lives of an Iowa family. The characters were inextricably bound to the geography of their world — the fields, the farms — its pull shaping their fates as strongly as the shifting cultural landscape.

In The Humanity Project, Thompson narrows her focus to a precise time: the financially cataclysmic present. An overwhelming sense of uncertainty defines the lives of these characters, turmoil that is both epic and personal, much of it the consequence of menial jobs and economic desperation.

An unnamed (at first) narrator sets the scene with unflinching honesty: “ We were afraid of so many things: Of our children, who lived in their own world of casually lurid pleasures, zombies and cartoon killers and thuggish music. Of our neighbors, who were buying gold and ammunition. … and were organizing themselves into angry tribes, recognizable to one another by bumper stickers. We feared that our lives had been spent in piling up not treasures but great heaps of discardable and wasteful things.”

Inevitable disaster looms over the story, which follows a loosely connected group of people in the San Francisco Bay area, most of them struggling. Sean, a divorced, unemployed handyman, can’t find work and is waiting helplessly for the bank to foreclose on his house, where he lives with his teenage son, Conner, a formerly good student slowly being drained of his innate decency by the necessities of hard times. Sean “felt like he was losing out, like they’d changed the rules when he wasn’t looking and drained all the good luck out of the world.” An impulsive Craigslist date throws his precarious situation into chaos.

Equally unhappy is teenage Linnea, who has moved to Mill Valley to live with her estranged teacher father, Art, after surviving a school shooting back in Ohio (her hated stepsister was not so lucky). Art, who passes his days in a haze of pot smoke and idle lust, has no idea what to do with his rebellious, uncommunicative daughter, just as Linnea can’t quite figure out how to escape her horrific memories.

Meanwhile, Art’s neighbor Christie, a nurse, is asked by Mrs. Foster, a wealthy private client, for help in setting up a philanthropic foundation called The Humanity Project, dedicated to — well, Christie isn’t exactly sure, and neither is her patron, a widow whose grown daughters resent the assault on their inheritance. The elderly woman seems bonkers at times, populating her gorgeous, expensive home with angry feral cats (proof of Thompson’s sardonic humor, as is the hilariously disastrous conference Christie plans). And yet Mrs. Foster wants to fund a sizable endowment to benefit humanity. “I know,” Christie says of that mission statement, “it needs considerable narrowing down. But it’s a good, generous impulse.”

Mrs. Foster’s goals aside — and there is some suggestion her philanthropy is aimed at flouting her dead husband’s wishes — good and generous impulses are in short supply in The Humanity Project. After all, as one cynical character says, “[H]uman nature is not the best investment the market has to offer.”

Sean grows addicted to painkillers. Conner abandons his friends, who are enjoying their final summer before college, to take a job as Mrs. Foster’s handyman and gives up on his own dreams. Linnea roams San Francisco as she pleases, paralyzing her inept father with fear. Christie discovers her altruistic impulses are driving her nuts: “She had wanted to engage with the world. And now the world was engaging right back.”

And yet. That’s Thompson’s gift, that “yet.” There is evidence after all of hope. Conner is kind to Linnea when she befriends him. Sean vows he will never abandon his dog just because times are rough. Linnea asks Christie for help when she needs it. A current of empathy flows through even the most desperate, Thompson writes, and maybe that’s the part worth preserving.

Conner’s conflicted feelings about Mrs. Foster sum up Thompson’s thesis best: “His dealings with her were in large part motivated by self-interest and in some smaller part by dread, guilt, obligation, and wanting to do the right thing. … all the people she brought around who kept trying to figure out the definition of humanity? That was it right there.” Conflicted, complex and compassionate when you least expect it: That’s us in a nutshell — and in Thompson’s ultimately profound novel.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.

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