The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke
When a Danish cartoonist’s house is bombed by terrorists, a rogue CIA agent decides to fake his death and stash him in Nowhere, USA. The title refers to Denmark, the country that tops many international measures of well-being, which is contrasted with the setting of the majority of the book, a claustrophobically small town in upstate New York. The plot is driven by an inept spy making overly emotional decisions and the various marital problems caused by the cartoonist’s arrival. Much of the action takes place in and around the high school where the cartoonist finds a job as a counselor; the principal (and ex affair partner of the CIA agent) is one of the main characters. It’s a globally important topic explored in a provincial setting that encourages the ridiculousness of the characters to bloom.
The subject and Brock’s madcap style fit very well together, perhaps more exactly than in any other book of his I’ve read. The characters usually act in the most awkward way possible, which leads to some really hilarious moments. I identified what I think of as Brock’s ‘signature move’ here: An inner monologue that takes place in an instant, but on the page goes on a bit longer than expected, as the character’s thoughts become increasingly absurd and anxious. Usually the character decides not to say anything, even though he has just revealed a startling tenderness and sharp desire for connection. Often, the monologue is a single very long sentence. These passages deliver a significant emotional punch, while also showing insight and psychological astuteness.
The ending surprised me in its violence and bleakness, but was not entirely without hope. This book was tons of fun to read. I was happy to reunite with Brock when he came to the Southern Festival of Books, but I was even more thrilled to see that he’s still writing like this: with biting humor that alternately hides and exposes a great big heart.