Brock Clarke’s The Happiest People in the World has been on my to-read list for awhile, so I was thrilled when (for once) our book club picked something that I meant to get around to.
Denmark, home of the happiest people in the world – and to second-rate cartoonist Jens, who takes on the task of drawing a cartoon depicting the controversy over the recently-published caricature of Mohammed. After he is attacked by angsty teenage wannabe-extremists, the CIA fakes his death and moves him to Broomeville, a small town in upstate New York, where he is to serve as the new high school guidance counselor. With no experience in that field, he blunders into a love affair with the principal’s ex-wife and a minefield of new enemies even as the people from his past track him down to destroy his future.
The pop art cover pretty adequately reflects the story being told. It’s as cartoonish as the subject that catalyzes the action, and all the characters come across as caricatures. A few characters were tolerable, like Jens himself and principal’s kid Kurt, but CIA agent Locks and principal Matty were frankly irritating. In addition, the majority of the rest of the town are also CIA operatives, who are incredibly incompetent at their jobs in a twist that proves more ridiculous than humorous. When you hate half the characters, you know the book isn’t quite for you.
The writing style jumps to and from these various characters’ points of view, so brace yourself for the sections with characters who you dislike. Despite being in each of their heads, they all have the same voices and think in lengthy and repititive run-on sentences. It makes for confusing reading at times, resulting in our half-serious conclusion that the mounted moose head at the bar serves as the primary narrator for the story. Like the sentence structures, the plot flow also meanders without ever building to an exciting climax – rather, it falters and ends with a whimper instead of a bang, despite the (spoiler alert) multiple deaths by shootout.
Ironically, our discussion proved to be funnier than the actual content of the book as we vented our varied frustrations. It’s not a book that stirs any of your emotions, even humor, as it always seems to be circling around a moral point carefully while failing to exploit either satiric or tragic potential to expose that point. Incidentally, no one in the book seemed particularly happy nor was I reading it.