The happiest people in the world: a novel by Brock Clarke is the most recent book that I have bought and latest read. I noticed Clarke’s newest work at a cute bookstore, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, in Washington D.C. during the 4th of July weekend. After finishing Exley, I couldn’t help myself from diving right in. What a stark contrast to his previous work!
Clarke’s writing style is the same, albeit even more polished and developed. While this novel is clearly related and stems from his other works, it is much more adult and darker. The main characters are not kids but serious adults with marital, love, and judgement problems that drive the story with their decisions and regrets. The humor and absurdity that are norms in Exley and An arsonist’s guide to writers’ homes in New England is not as present in this novel. The premise is at once odd and yet both unrealistic and rooted in reality: a Danish cartoonist who draws an offensive Mohammad cartoon has his house burned down, assumes the name Henry and claims to be Swedish and is moved to rural upstate New York by an underground group of spies. Everyone either loves someone whom they are not with or is hiding a secret and leading a double life. The spies constantly monitor the town of Broomsville and draw on the smart youth from the local high school for recruiting. Compared to his other novels, this one feels like it could almost pass as journalism, recording a real event instead of fiction, since it is almost entirely believable, as eerie as that seems. I expected this novel to have a quirky, fun vibe to it but instead I was treated to a thoughtful, probing novel about life and the current societal norms.
The book begins at the end, with the massacre in the bar being viewed through surveillance footage without sound since the microphone is broken. For the rest of the novel, the story builds to that climax but keeps the reader guessing throughout as to who was there, what caused it, and how it went down. While Henry is the main character, the story also follows a young female spy named Locs who longs for her past love Matthew in Broomsville, and follows Matthew’s teenage son Kurt who has a secret life of his own even within the rural town. A central theme throughout is the bond of relationships and what it can and cannot survive–the limits of love and what it takes to revoke it. This is true for both the romantic and familial relationships, including the tipping point of whether or not something is shared that would kindle further trust and closeness.
A successful literary technique that Clarke refined in further in The happiest people in the world is the stream of consciousness from various characters. It occurs when the character is volleying an argument back and forth in their head, trying to decide what to do or whether or not to worry, which in turn they are already worrying about worrying it. They are delightful, speedy passages filled with commas instead of periods that propel the momentum forward and convey the urgency and rush of inner thoughts. The passages create a sense of authenticity and bring the reader closer to that character. Locs, Matthew/Matty, Søren, and Ronald are just a few who experience these streams of consciousness that make the story all the more enjoyable.
Recommended?: For anyone in need of a good and fairly quick read about the strain and kindling of relationships, both family and romantic. Also, lovers of haphazard spies who are too human for their own good–this crew isn’t super savvy but lovable in their own endearing way, though they are very deadly. Plus, readers who enjoy stories about characters remaking themselves and trying to start over against the odds will find Henry a compelling main character.
Let’s hope Clarke publishes another novel soon…I can barely wait for his next.