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Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?

Review

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?

There aren’t many coming-of-age novels that feature a protagonist on the cusp of turning 50, but that’s not the only thing that makes Brock Clarke’s latest novel, WHO ARE YOU, CALVIN BLEDSOE?, unusual. How many novels also feature the theology of John Calvin, pellet stoves, and a dash across Europe rife with crime, sex and assorted forms of intrigue? But for all its amusing moments and bizarre plot twists, this is a story that leaves only a faint impression when the final page is turned.

Clarke frankly admits that his book is a homage to one of his favorite novels, Graham Greene’s TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT. In Clarke’s story, the “aunt” is Beatrice Stark, who appears at the funeral of her 79-year-old twin sister, Nola Bledsoe, in the small town of Congress, Maine. Nola, a minister, has written a “famous book” (as we are reminded many times) on the work of John Calvin that’s become a surprise international bestseller. Her death, in a fiery crash on a train track, leaves her son Calvin, a divorced blogger for the pellet stove industry (the same job held by his ex-wife who’s moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and inexplicably wants him to join her there), an orphan.

"Calvin, the novel’s narrator, is the sort of protagonist who’s easy to like but hard to love, as he’s more acted upon than actor."

But Aunt Beatrice, who was last in Maine when Calvin was born, has other plans. After the funeral, she invites him to join her on a “little trip,” the destination of which turns out to be Sweden. She’s even purchased his ticket and somehow without his knowledge secured a passport for him. “It’s time to grow up,” she tells him.

From Stockholm to Copenhagen to Paris to Geneva to Marseille to Lisbon, via plane, train, automobile and boat, Clarke keeps the plot bubbling along, with more complications than it seems possible to shoehorn into a novel of barely 300 pages. There are characters known by bizarre nicknames --- the Sociologist, the Butcher and the Conductor --- who’ve all played a role in Aunt Beatrice’s life. The novel’s violence is mostly of the cartoon variety, but Calvin has to endure quite a bit of it before the story’s end. As he writes on his blog, he’s “impersonated, fired, assaulted, kidnapped, imprisoned, mentally tortured,” though his emotional temperature never seems to rise.

But Beatrice’s strange associations aren’t the only thing that’s unsettling about her. In their travels, Calvin discovers his aunt’s penchant for brazen crimes, her life a sharp contrast to his mother’s decorous one. Calvin never has been comfortable with his mother’s legacy, but as the trip continues and his aunt shares some shocking facts about her, he concludes, “the more I learned about my mother’s sins, the more I loved her.”

And Aunt Beatrice, whose job once involved getting paid to slap women, is the kind of person who “rarely told you the whole story.” She’s quick to draw on her own store of hard-earned wisdom --- in marked contrast to the apt and often surprisingly amusing aphorisms from the work of John Calvin that enliven the novel --- that includes such pearls as “Thou shall lie, but only if thou lies well.” Calvin concedes that “since I’d met my aunt, it seemed like everyone might be up to something.” But the main lesson she imparts is that “if you are not capable of surprising someone, then you are not capable of being fully human.”

WHO ARE YOU, CALVIN BLEDSOE? is the sort of novel that goes down easily, but somehow adds up to something less than the sum of its parts. Beginning with AN ARSONIST’S GUIDE TO WRITERS’ HOMES IN NEW ENGLAND, Clarke has displayed a fondness for quirky characters, and Calvin’s Aunt Beatrice might be among his quirkiest. The problem with her portrait is that Clarke too often substitutes tics and shtick for real insight into her character. Calvin, the novel’s narrator, is the sort of protagonist who’s easy to like but hard to love, as he’s more acted upon than actor. By the novel’s end, it’s hard to say we have much more of an answer to the question posed by its title than we did when it started.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 6, 2019

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
by Brock Clarke

  • Publication Date: August 27, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 161620821X
  • ISBN-13: 9781616208219