The Happiest People In The World by Brock Clarke (5 out of 5)
I was sent an advance of this by Lauren at Algonquin Books (thank you again, Lauren- you rule!). Don’t rush to your bookstores just yet, friends, this one isn’t out until November 4, 2014. I’m familiar with Brock’s previous titles, Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes In New England. If you’re not familiar with them, for shame! Pick up his other titles and hunker down for a lot of hilarious, unusual writing with great, unforgettable characters. One of my favorite authors who doesn’t write nearly as quick as I’d like (one a year would be great!), but when he does, well, he never fails to bring traces of the strange, absurdist situations you would never believe- if you didn’t read it.
This one takes place in what I can only describe as the “boonies” of Denmark. Yes, Denmark. This is the place, one is to guess, that houses the “happiest people in the world”. However, there’s a band of political cartoonists in Denmark who put Muhammad into their political drawings, and ignited a band of outrage that began with but wasn’t limited to threats, protests, and assassination attempts(based on a real-life incident, by the way).Jens also pays a personal price as the job and then his marriage go belly up as a result of the furor. The CIA intervenes and houses Jens, one of the cartoonists, in an upstate New York town, and relocate him as a high school guidance counselor. Jens just can’t seem to walk the straight and narrow line when he falls in love with the principal’s wife. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, the principal is getting over his own little affair with the CIA agent who placed Jens at that job. I can’t give enough credence to the entire scenario by saying it’s hilarious and like one of those screwy rom com movies starring Matt Perry that you saw in the 90’s while drunk on Zima with a guy who looked a hell of a lot like Matt Perry. It’s wacky, it’s hilarious, and I’m not joking when I say that there were entire parts of this book where my side hurt from laughing at the ensuing situations this quartet gets themselves into. This tiny New York town also gives one the impression that just about every single person in the town is a spy and that no secret- including Jens’ real identity- is safe. Nothing is sacred, nothing is safe, but oh hell, nothing is pretty damn hilarious! Jens ends up on the move again, eventually ending up back in Denmark… but should he have stuck it out in New York? Or is he safer back where the frying pan gave way to the fire, where the happiest people in the world live?
This gives way to all sorts of questions- are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having a spy around every corner? Will Jens ever reclaim his life? Will he get a second chance with his soon to be ex wife, or with the principal’s wife? Does she follow him, and does it bust up the happy little high school? Exactly how much do total strangers on the street know about you? How much can they claim to know you, when you draw a cartoon, which is a running form of satire, and it results in you losing your normal life, to go on the run as a whole new person? Are the Danes getting a secondhand pot buzz from Amsterdam? How real are the people encountered in the book? Does everyone have a secret agenda?
Clarke has taken something that happened in the real world and whipped up a madcap, somewhat satirical look at what would happen with a whole different cast of characters, different locations, and more tellingly, with a lot more intelligence and paranoia covering everyone like a smoke bomb. What results is unexpected, offbeat, and as I said, side splitting funny in parts. I did also like Jens and feel he was a sympathetic character, even as he does several things that made me smack my head and go “Really, dude?” . The supporting casts of riff raff persons add more hilarity to the story. Seriously, do yourself a favor. If you need something funny, yet with moments of biting commentary that echo what’s happening in today’s world, pick up a copy of this book when it’s released on November 4th, 2014. And better yet, recommend the hell out of it to anyone who likes to laugh. That’s what I intend to do.