Brock Clarke is an award-winning, bestselling author who writes quirky books, the kind we love. So it probably would have been a no brainer to agree to read his latest novel, The Happiest People In The World, even if the description hadn’t made me laugh out loud. It’s been called a madcap adventure and it definitely is. It’s also a thriller of sorts, with characters who could have easily fit into the old TV spy show Get Smart. At its center is a person who is convinced everything will turn out just fine, even while the world seems to be doing everything in its power to keep that from happening. And it has as its springboard real events (at least in the very beginning of the story). If that all sounds a bit odd, no worries because Brock Clarke is a master storyteller and he makes it work beautifully…so beautifully in fact that I was extremely tempted to keep this one instead of offering it in a giveaway one of you will win!
Various polls and studies have determined that the Danish people are indeed the happiest people in the world – there’s documented proof. Jens Baedrup is one of those people, or at least he is when our story begins. In 2005, Jens is a cartoonist for the Skagen, Denmark newspaper, The Optimist, when the editor of the Danish Copenhagen newspaper, Jellands-Posten, invites twelve editorial cartoons to depict the prophet Mohammed as they see him and then decides to publish those cartoons along with an explanation. What results is like a small nuclear explosion heard around the world, with boycotts of Danish products, protests, riots, and a Danish embassy in the Middle East being firebombed.
Jens’ editor, in his infinite wisdom, decides Jens should draw a cartoon for The Optimist that depicts the controversy surrounding the cartoons the Copenhagen newspaper published. It’s one of those seemed like a good idea at the time moments with far ranging consequences that these two Danes, in their eternal optimism, never expected. Jens is sure it will all turn out just fine because life always does. Danish people of Middle Eastern descent, on the other hand, are flabbergasted that Danes could be so dense as to go there again after the uproar over the first cartoons being published. To say they are incensed would be an understatement.
Jens doesn’t understand. He’s not a political person. He doesn’t harbor ill will against people of Middle Eastern descent or Mohammed. He just drew the cartoon his boss told him to draw. Yet suddenly his life is in danger. Then his house is firebombed and he finds himself in a witness protection program, working with a CIA agent named Locs while the world thinks he’s dead. Jens’ wife leaves him and she gets to stay in Skagen, the town he loves, but Jens has to go into hiding. He’s given an alias and shuffled all over the world for a certain period to throw off any determined assassins.
Then the time finally comes when the CIA feels he can be placed into a new life. Where can they send him where he might fit in yet it’s a remote enough location that terrorists aren’t likely to find him? Locs knows just the place, Broomeville in remote upstate New York…the small nothing yucky place she fled with all her being. Her boss, Capo, agrees it’s the perfect choice even though he believes Locs probably has an ulterior motive for placing Jens, now to be known as Henrik, a.k.a. Henry, there. Henry is to become the town’s new guidance counselor and he is told to do nothing to give his prior identity away – no drawing, pretending to be Swedish instead of Danish, etc. Jens/Henry has no idea how to be Swedish. He doesn’t even speak Swedish. Still, he’s hoping no one else in the tiny town of Broomeville will know either because he has to make this work – he has no other options left.
“’He did what?’ she [Locs] asked into her cell phone, and then she listened to the whole story again. At the end of it, she had two questions.
‘Why did you say it was Stephen Ray Vaughan’s birthday?’ Locs knew it was Stevie, not Stephen, but she refused to refer to grown men, even dead grown men, by their boyish diminutives.
‘Because it really is his birthday,’ the agent said. ‘And his name was Stevie. He hated to be called Stephen. His mother called him Stephen.’
Jesus Christ, Locs thought, they’ll let anyone be an agent nowadays. But maybe they’d always let anyone become an agent. The agent who’d recruited her, for example.
‘And why did you say that about Stephen Wonder?’ she asked. The agent didn’t say anything back at first. Locs knew he was wondering whether he should correct her again, and if he did, whether she would have him fired or murdered.
‘Because the guy [Jens/Henry] looked so sad,’ the agent finally said.
‘But hopeful,’ Locs said.
‘That made it even sadder,’ the agent said. “I wanted to hug him.’
‘Or slap him,’ Locs said. ‘Either way, he failed the test.’
‘You knew he was going to.’
‘I didn’t know,’ Locs said. But she did.”
One minor detail; the high school already has a guidance counselor. Of course, she’s a borderline alcoholic screw-up so Matty, the principal, isn’t grieving over Locs’ request that he fire her so Henry can take her place. Locs has a certain hold over the conflicted Matty and he’s the main reason she fled this small town. He’d probably walk naked through fire for her if his wife and teenage son weren’t watching – long story. When Locs shows up with Henry, she has a fantasy that maybe things might have changed with Matty but she finds he still doesn’t have the courage to walk away from his wife – so, for that reason and because of complications with Capo, she hightails it out of Broomeville as fast as possible.
Matty’s wife, Ellen, who runs the local Lumber Lodge bar, unintentionally provides Henry with the perfect way to compensate for Americanisms with which he’s unfamiliar. She says she uses a technique with her teenage son, Kurt, of crossing her arms and looking pensive when he doesn’t fess up to something he’s done. According to her, it works every time and he ends up spilling his guts. Henry practices this technique and is astonished at how well it works with adults too. It becomes his signature posture and people in town think he’s so wise that pretty soon a lot of people are talking to him about their concerns and asking his advice. It definitely is an excellent method to use in his guidance counselor role. The kids quickly learn he won’t judge them and they much prefer him over the prior counselor.
Meanwhile Broomeville has an overabundance of CIA agents who are keeping a close watch on Henry to ensure no harm comes to him but also that he doesn’t give his identity away – a task easier said than done. Capo and his crew of embedded agents have their work cut out for them to ensure Henry’s life turns out just fine…or that he ceases to exist altogether if he becomes too big of a liability, kind of like the guidance counselor did.
Little by little Henry adapts to his new home. It doesn’t hurt that he and Ellen are so attracted to each other but he also has a firm conviction that things will turn out just fine for him in Broomeville. Despite things that begin to happen, he still holds firm to that conviction – even when he gets punched in the nose by Matty at one point. Ellen is Matty’s wife, after all – or at least she is until she divorces him because she still suspects him of loving Locs and, well, because Ellen has fallen for Henry. Ellen has also begun to hope that everything will be just fine, as Henry constantly tells her it will be. He seems so certain of it.
Locs meanwhile has retreated to the coastal area near Skagen to figure out her next move. She’d like nothing better than to kill every living person in Broomeville, starting with Matty and Henry. Well, maybe not Matty if he still cares but Henry soon becomes the target of her revenge fantasies. With that in mind, she approaches Soren, one of the two young Danish Muslim men who firebombed Jens/Henry’s house. Soren has tortured himself for years because he believes he murdered Jens and he never intended to harm anyone, just the house. That act has destroyed his life. He has been punishing himself and doesn’t believe he deserves his happiness.
Locs convinces him Jens is not only alive but is living a new life of ease and happiness while Soren has been suffering for something he didn’t do. She convinces Soren to go to Broomeville to seek revenge. She tells Soren he has to kill Henry for making him suffer. She manipulates Soren and works him up into quite a state, so much so that he agrees to go to Broomeville and do what she asks.
Will Soren actually kill Henry? Will Locs and Matty get back together? Will Ellen and Henry get married? Will Matty try to get Ellen back? How will Capo and his crew of agents react to Soren showing up in town? Will Capo permit Henry to marry Ellen or will he try to steer Ellen back to Matty? What other weird things are going on with the oddball citizens of Broomeville? Can unhappy Broomeville ever be made happy by one Dane who’s eternally determined that everything will turn out just fine?
This cast of characters put the quirky in quirky. I liked some of them despite themselves and others just because they were so naively lovable. Unlike I usually do, I’m not going to say more about them to prevent spoilers because there’s a lot of this person is not at all the way they seem going on in this novel. And then there’s Jens/Henrik/Henry, who is the quintessential Everyman. Henry reminds me to some extent of Bertolt Brecht’s main character in his early work, A Man’s A Man.
“Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” kept going through my mind as I devoured The Happiest People In The World. Sometimes you just pick up a novel and know it’s going to be one of the best novels you’ll read all year. This was one of those times, and it was quickly confirmed as I read. It’s a deliciously twisty tale. Some characters are hilarious and others are creepy in a shivery behind the scenes kind of way. Qualities they share with Spy vs. Spy and Get Smart keep the creepy parts from feeling quite so creepy, although the underlying messages and lessons are very reality based. I highly recommend The Happiest People In The World and, even though one of you is going to win a copy, it’s definitely worth the price of admission!
Want to know more about how the author decided to write this novel?
“In the spring of 2005, I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark. I’d heard of Denmark, of course, but I never thought about it as a place where I’d actually ever go, or where I ever especially wanted to go. If I’d thought of Denmark at all, I’d thought of it as the country with all the windmills and tulips. Which meant that when I was thinking of Denmark, I was really thinking of the Netherlands. That’s how little I’d thought about Denmark before Spring 2005.
But wow, I loved it once I got there. I loved it the way you can only love a place that never existed for you before you went there and to your great surprise started loving it. I loved it the way you can only love a place that is the opposite of the other place you’ve loved.” Excerpt from Brock Clarke’s essay on writing The Happiest People In The World. Click here to read the rest of this essay.
Author Appearances & Book Signings:
November 19, 2014 7pm Green Apple Books San Francisco, CA
November 21, 2014 4:30pm California College of the Arts San Francisco, CA
November 29, 2014 1-3pm Longfellow Books Portland, Maine (Indie First Day)
January 5, 2015 7pm Converse College Spartenburg, SC
January 10, 2015 7pm University of Tampa, Tampa, FL
January 11, 2015 TBA University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast MFA Program)
January 14, 2015 12pm Public Library Main Branch Portland, Maine
January 29, 2015 7:30pm Bates College Lewiston, Maine
February 26, 2015 7:30pm University of Maine – Farmington, Maine
April 10, 2015 7pm Magers and Quinn Bookstore Minneapolis, MN
April 11, 2015 1:30pm AWP Conference & Bookfair Minneapolis, MN
Can’t wait to read it?
The Happiest People In The World was published on November 4, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). That means you can get it to read right now!
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One lucky reader will win a finished hardcover copy of The Happiest People In The World by Brock Clarke!
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