I have been a fan of Brock Clarke since I stumbled on his novel The Ordinary White Boy over a decade ago and decided to ask him to participate in a Q&A. I have read most of his books since, I somehow skipped Exley, and have interviewed him a few times.
So when I saw that he was releasing a new novel, The Happiest People in the World, I figured it was time to catch up with Mr. Clarke.
First, the new novel:
Take the format of a spy thriller, shape it around real-life incidents involving international terrorism, leaven it with dark, dry humor, toss in a love rectangle, give everybody a gun, and let everything play out in the outer reaches of upstate New York—there you have an idea of Brock Clarke’s new novel, The Happiest People in the World.
Who are “the happiest people in the world”? Theoretically, it’s all the people who live in Denmark, the country that gave the world Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales and the open-face sandwich. But Denmark is also where some political cartoonists got into very unhappy trouble when they attempted to depict Muhammad in their drawings, which prompted protests, arson, and even assassination attempts.
Imagine, then, that one of those cartoonists, given protection through the CIA, is relocated to a small town in upstate New York where he is given a job as a high school guidance counselor. Once there, he manages to fall in love with the wife of the high school principal, who himself is trying to get over the effects of a misguided love affair with the very CIA agent who sent the cartoonist to him. Imagine also that virtually every other person in this tiny town is a CIA operative.
The result is a darkly funny tale of paranoia and the all-American obsession with security and the conspiracies that threaten it, written in a tone that is simultaneously filled with wonder and anger in almost equal parts.
It took me a bit to get into this satirical and rather melancholy novel. I was reading small chunks before bed and had a hard time finding a rhythm; from the weird start with the Moose camera to the cartoonist’s fateful decision in Denmark it seemed a little disjointed.
But once I was able to settle in and read for longer stretches I enjoyed Clarke’s wry humor and meditations on love and family. I am not sure the espionage aspects really worked all that well, but Clarke is at his best when he is describing the lives of upstate New Yorkers whether high school principals, their bar owner wives, or angst filled, and pot smoking, teenagers.
Like so much of Clarke’s work, it is full of brutally honest appraisals of human nature and tendencies but also absurd events and dark humor. But Clarke’s characters seem remarkably realistic despite the absurdity. He has a way of shining a light on the absurd nature of much of “everyday life.”
Even as the characters careen toward disaster you can understand the choice they make and even sympathize with them knowing you have made the same sort of seemingly natural choices that lead only to disaster (even if not quite the sort described in the novel).
Clarke dazzles with a dizzying study in extremes, cruising at warp speed between bleak and optimistic, laugh-out-loud funny and unbearable sadness. His comedy of errors is impossible to put down.
If you are a fan of Clarke you will enjoy his latest.