Only the most intrepid or giddy readers persist in the search for a great new comic novel. We know it must be out there, somewhere, like Bigfoot. Every few months, an excited alarm is raised in the forest of literary fiction; we rush to inspect the spoor. Thurber? Amis? Hmm. … Funny, but not really hilarious. The track is inconclusive. The search goes on.
Rumors about Brock Clarke’s new book, The Happiest People in the World, drove us weary explorers into fits of sniggering anticipation. This could be it. Clarke, an English professor at Bowdoin College, creates books that taste like delicious cuts of absurdity marbled with erudition. In 2007, he wrote a witty satire of literary culture called An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. He followed that up with a darkly comic novel about a boy’s search for the American novelist Frederick Exley.
The Happiest People in the World is about Jens Baedrup, a cartoonist of “unshakable optimism” working for the Optimist newspaper in Skagen, Denmark, the happiest city in the happiest country in the world. He accepts an assignment to draw a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, which a less optimistic cartoonist in a less happy city might have realized was not a good way to keep one’s job — or head. But the death threats go a long way toward changing Jens’ mind. When his newspaper is forced to close, and thugs burn down his house, he’s pretty well convinced that the situation is not optimal.
You may recall the unfunny, real-life antecedent of this novel’s premise. Ten years ago, cartoons about Muhammad in a Danish newspaper sparked protests, riots and violence around the world. But if comedy is tragedy plus time, maybe almost a decade is enough. Maybe a clueless artist stumbling into a propeller of Islamic rage could be spun into satiric hilarity.
Clarke may be playing with fire here, but he’s wearing so many oven mitts that the humor feels ham-fisted and lukewarm. I don’t blame him for smothering the potential for death threats, but if you’re going to write a satire about the absurdity of Islamofascism, the comedy ain’t over till the fatwa sings.
Instead, Clarke quickly shifts his novel to America, where it wanders along with a series of crazy incidents about family life and secret agents. The CIA, you see, has floated a story that Jens was killed when arsonists destroyed his home. As it’s wont to do, the agency sets up the Danish cartoonist as a high school guidance counselor in the little town of Broomeville, New York, which — please keep this to yourself — is a recruitment center for new agents. Jens disguises his identity by telling everyone he’s from Sweden. The top spy keeps watch on things through a camera in the eye of the moose head hanging in a bar owned by the principal’s wife.
So far, so Get Smart. But the novel’s zaniness pokes along obediently at 55 mph. This is a comic thriller so obvious that it should come with its own spoiler alerts. The madcap traits of The Happiest People in the World are domesticated into submission as we get all bogged down in the principal’s failing marriage and his son’s adolescent problems. Jokes about how dull high school is show up like retired teachers at a reunion, familiar but not very interesting. The secret agents bumble around — one of them vomits violently whenever he kills someone — but too often, Clarke’s nerve fails him; he rarely exploits the potential here for Coen brothers-style bloody fun.
Instead, the novel relies heavily on two stylistic techniques that generate diminishing returns. The first is to represent characters’ thoughts in absurdly long, make-it-stop-make-it-stop, run-on sentences that suggest the confused, circuitous nature of their minds. (I’d offer you an example, but it would take up all the space I have here.) Clarke’s second technique is to repeat words or phrases, as in this passage in which the principal’s son unknowingly confronts a secret agent:
“’I’m sorry, but you can’t park here,’ Kurt said. He said this really, really slowly, as slowly as he possibly could. He often did this with his parents: he would talk slowly so that it would seem to them that he must be on drugs and so that they’d eventually ask, all worried, ‘Are you on drugs?’ and he’d get to say, in his normal voice, ‘No, I can’t believe you’d ask me that!’ because even when he was on drugs, the drugs didn’t make him talk that way. ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t park here,’ he said, slowly, slowly.”
Quickly, quickly, that comic tic quickly loses its ability to amuse. Which is a shame, because The Happiest People in the World contains amusing elements — about marriage, small towns, Danes and spies — but they’re weighed down in the corpulent body of this novel.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.