The Happiest People in the World
In September 2005, a Danish newspaper published a collection of editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in what many Muslims saw as an unflattering light. The firestorm that resulted from those cartoons provides the launching pad for Brock Clarke's characteristically energetic fourth novel. After the perplexing EXLEY, it marks a welcome return to the smart, emotionally serious satire of his 2007 novel, AN ARSONIST'S GUIDE TO WRITERS' HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND.
Clarke sets the plot in motion by imagining the complications that ensue when Jens Baedrup, a Danish cartoonist for a small-town paper, the Skagen Optimist, reluctantly complies with his editor's request to produce a cartoon commenting on the real life controversy. That decision, by a man whose "whole life, it seemed, was a series of mistakes that anyone else in the world would have recognized as mistakes in advance and therefore would not have made them," unleashes a cascade of misfortune highlighted by the demise of his newspaper, the torching of his house by a Muslim teenager and the collapse of his marriage. For someone whose recurring comment on life's events is "everything is going to be just fine," that benign attitude is about to be put to a severe test.
"Clarke is at his best in revealing how the Broomeville characters yearn to share even a small taste of their bliss. In doing that, he marries farce and tragedy to create a most appealing work."
Clarke quickly and cleverly moves the novel's action from small-town Denmark to a most improbable locale: the thoroughly inconsequential town of Broomeville in upstate New York. Jens, given a new faux Swedish identity as Henrik (Henry) Larsen, is spirited there by CIA agent Lorraine Callahan, known as Locs to her former lover Matty Klock, the principal of the town's junior-senior high school. Without any apparent qualifications, Henry is installed as the school's guidance counselor. "No one really knows. Don't worry. You'll do just fine," Matty reassures him when asked what a guidance counselor does.
It soon becomes clear that life in Broomeville, a setting for whose claustrophobic quirkiness (like the annual student-faculty baseball game that takes place as the first snowflakes fly) Clarke has a keen feel, is anything but dull. As the mystery surrounding Henry's past deepens and a succession of haphazardly conceived plots to assassinate him unfold, we learn that most of Broomeville's archetypes --- the diner owner nicknamed "Doc" who doubles as the coroner, the pot-selling long-term substitute teacher, even the school security guard --- are anything but what they seem.
The bumbling CIA agents who infiltrate the town are about as far from stereotypical spies as it's possible to imagine. In keeping with its humble locale, Clarke dispenses with any of the trappings of high tech espionage, offering some subtle ridicule of efforts like the NSA's data collection by having Broomeville's hapless spies install a camera and microphone (that works only intermittently) in the head of a moose on the wall of the Lumber Lodge.
For all his comedic talent, Clarke is a serious novelist, and so he leavens his humor with a skillfully drawn portrait of the tension between Matty and his wife, Ellen (the owner of the Lumber Lodge), that lingers from Matty's affair with Locs seven years earlier. Thinking of his former lover, Matty's emotions cycle through "shame, regret, defiance, loss, shame," and their complexity is matched by Ellen's persistent bitterness, acted out in a growing attraction to the Danish stranger. Clarke's sympathies aren't reserved for Broomeville's natives, as he portrays his principal Muslim characters --- Søren and his father --- with empathy and precision.
For most of the novel, Clarke restrains its at times manic quality from spinning out of control, although the climax seems more suited to a Quentin Tarantino movie than it does to the story's Richard Russo-esque roots. But it's easy to forgive him that stumble because he does such an effective job tempering the book's fanciful elements with serious themes: the fraught relations between fathers and teenage sons, the way the fabric of a long-term marriage frays and finally gives way, and the longing for each other of two people who understand that their relationship is a doomed one. The Danes may be the "happiest people in the world," but Clarke is at his best in revealing how the Broomeville characters yearn to share even a small taste of their bliss. In doing that, he marries farce and tragedy to create a most appealing work.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on December 5, 2014
The Happiest People in the World
- Publication Date: November 4, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Books
- ISBN-10: 1616201118
- ISBN-13: 9781616201111