Dean Bakopoulos. (Julian Goldberg )
My American Unhappiness
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 277 pp., $24
Whichever way you turn, beacons of American inauthenticity and political dysfunction are all around you, clamoring for your head space, your dollars, your compromised vote, your misplaced sense of nostalgia. It's enough to make you want to quit your job, move to the woods and sell your artisanal jam through the Internet.
Collected from Dean Bakopoulos' "My American Unhappiness," here's a short list of some of the things that might make you miserable: Food courts, specifically fast-food places posing as Asian-fusion and Latin-fusion bistros. ATM surcharges. Healthcare. Global warming. Wars. That Cracker Barrel opening out near the highway.
It's those twin dissatisfactions — looming crises on the widescreen; niggling corporate-sourced ennui in the foreground — that provide the backdrop to "My American Unhappiness," a fresh-spirited, timely satire crossed with '70s-style sexual comedy, if slightly chastened by the '80s sitcom.
The story of the book's creation neatly dovetails with its themes. Bakopoulos submitted his manuscript to his publisher in 2008, only to see it languish throughout the banking crisis, but that delay might've been a blessing in disguise. The author took the extra time to steer his second novel into thornier territory. The main character and setting of "My American Unhappiness" manage to be imaginatively mundane: Zeke Pappas, a man raised by a now-deceased Greek immigrant father and a chain-smoking mother who works at the Old Country Buffet, is residing in the liberal hamlet of Madison, Wis., where he heads up the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative.
The federally funded program, limping by with a staff of two, has been tasked with "encouraging civic engagement" and "regional pride," but 34-year-old Zeke, who often speaks in a formal cadence somewhere between an operating manual and a Miss Manners guide, has instead directed the energies of the program toward a near-singular goal: an inventory of American unhappiness.
Lodging their complaints in emails and in on-camera interviews with Zeke, Americans chart their dismay with a life defined by institutions instead of rugged individualism. Superficial consumerist choices abound, but few people know how to build a home with their own hands, or how to fish, or repair their own cars.
In other words, "My American Unhappiness" is a novel of First World problems, but it's so in touch with that state of privilege that it won't abide taking it all, or itself, too seriously. This isn't J.G. Ballard's suburban horror or Don DeLillo's fraught postmodern chill; instead, "My American Unhappiness" sometimes feels like an episode of the old TV sitcom "Three's Company," directed by filmmaker Noah Baumbach. Think of Zeke as the Jack Tripper of the Upper Midwest, and, in a twist not to be spoiled here, he's given the challenge of landing a wife in a few months so that he can keep his two nieces, who have been in his custody since his brother Cougar died in Iraq.
A good-looking man, Zeke has choices: Minn, the flirtatious barista at Starbucks who's entertained by Zeke's near-unerring ability to guess the orders of strangers; Elizabeth, his neighbor navigating a messy divorce; and single mother Lara, his increasingly put-upon assistant at the humanities initiative. Over the course of the book, Pappas has a series of misadventures — of course a Taser gun and Facebook are involved — with these women whose lives are in the kind of flux that hovers just under the smooth surfaces of American middle-class life.
Some characters, like Zeke's best friends, the gay couple Mack and Joseph, and the politician-benefactors of the initiative with sordid secret lives feel like cogs of tokenism in the plot machine. Far and away, the book's best asset is its deft consideration of satire, one that isn't bunkered down with an egoist's judgmental take on what ails us. Instead, this novel grabs at the problems and roughhouses with them a bit, for sport and affection. It's the ultimate Midwestern act of tough love, as if the setting and its inherent values have penetrated the book's core.
Bakopoulos might take umbrage at what seems tacky, disingenuous, insidious or downright dangerous in this country, but at the end of the day, he writes about America the way he might talk about the crazy uncle who didn't make it to the dinner table that night. "I love him, but God is he messed up."