Jean Thompsons 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, cant 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 theyd changed the rules when he wasnt 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 cant quite figure out how to escape her horrific memories.
Meanwhile, Arts 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 isnt 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 Thompsons 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 its a good, generous impulse.