The Happiest People In the World

By Brock Clarke

(Algonquin, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Brock Clarke, who lives in Portland (the Maine one, not the Oregon one or the Connecticut one)  is the author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller, and the novels Exley and The Ordinary White Boy, as well as two story collections. He’s won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Fiction, along with other honors and his stories and essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals and anthologies. He teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.

What is this book about?

Following a trip to Denmark, which Clarke cheerfully admits he had mixed up with The Netherlands, Clarke was inspired by the real life brouhaha that transpired when several Danish cartoonists did caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, thereby thoroughly upsetting the world of Islam and putting their own lives at risk of fatal retaliation. This set Clarke to wondering what would happen if a cartoonist from what has been called the home of “the happiest people in the world” was given a witness-protection-style new identity as a high school guidance counselor, of all things, and shipped off to upper New York state, to a town where, it turns out, the CIA has been stashing various operatives for a long while. What would happen? Dark, delicious, spy novel satire that tweaks American worries about security and conspiracies is the answer.

Of course, given the recent horror of the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo satirical cartoonists in France, this book now takes on (perhaps unwanted) relevance.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s a spy thriller, it’s political, it’s damn funny and it’s cleverly constructed and written. Clarke manages to hit a whole bunch of sweet spots in one novel, potentially making his readers among the happiest in the world.

I recommend that you take the time to go to his website,, and find the essay he wrote about what inspired this book. It will give you a good sense of what the book is about, and more important, his writing style. Here is an excerpt:

“So what is this novel about? It’s about a bunch of things. It’s about free speech and religious intolerance. It’s about what it’s like to live in America right now, with its messed up economy and messed up families and its clashing cultures and its NSA scandals and its wiretapping and its Gitmos and its Snowdens and Plames. It’s about what it’s like to be a high school guidance counselor, not to mention a high school principal, not to mention a high school teacher, not to mention a high school student. It’s about what it’s like to be in a marriage, to be in a family, to love people but not as purely as they deserve. It’s about the way we believe that we can’t be happy unless someone else is unhappy. But mostly, it’s about a person who runs from his past and into a future made up of a new family, a new town, a new country. Meanwhile, all of the people in that new family, town, and country are trying to figure out if and how they can run from their pasts, and if so, in what kind of future they’ll find themselves. They wonder, “Will it be a future we want, or a future we deserve?” I wonder that, too.”

What others are saying:

Says the Wall Street Journal: “In Brock Clark ’s dark and funny satire “The Happiest People in the World”, a Danish cartoonist facing death threats after drawing a picture of the Prophet Muhammad is placed in a witness protection program and sent to live in Broomeville, N.Y. Why Broomeville? His CIA handler is in love with the sleepy town’s high-school principal. Coincidentally, Broomeville is also a CIA recruiting hub—half its residents are armed spies, and the mounted moose head in the local lodge has a hidden video camera.

If all this sounds ludicrous, that is Mr. Clarke’s point. A more peaceable soul than the cartoonist doesn’t exist (he orders his eggs sunny side up rather than poached or scrambled because it seems “the most optimistic and least violent of the three choices”), but his arrival riles up the agents, who find themselves incapable of deciding whom to protect and whom to watch. The ridiculous confusion of infidelities, secret identities and double-crosses that plays out reflects the absurdity of any country obsessed with spying on its own people. And the paranoia and bloodshed that consume Broomeville in the novel’s grim finale are entirely self-inflicted.”

The Chicago Tribune says: “Clarke’s comedy is complex and packed with big ideas, but also wonderful sentences. The cartoonist, on his way to his new life, having just taken a nap on a bus, feels “that pleasant, superior, invincible feeling one gets when one has just woken up. It’s the way cats must always feel.” Clarke’s characterizations are equally deft, as when the teenage Kurt observes his uncle who is “reading the paper, making those clucking sounds designed only to make the person sitting with you finally ask, What? But Kurt refused to ask it. He was busy feeling melancholy.” Clarke says a great deal about each person in just a few sentences, and the whole book is like that: exuberantly packed.”

“Clarke and his newest protagonist play with fire in the figurative sense in the writer’s fourth, most combustibly funny novel, “The Happiest People in the World,” a transcontinental screwball comedy that mines cathartic (if not consoling) laughs from such front-page flashpoints as global terrorism, government surveillance, and gun ownership,” says the Boston Globe.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The latest from Clarke is a whiz-bang spy satire bundled in an edgy tale of redemption. Impulsive cartoonist Jens Baedrup leaves his wife and home in Denmark with the help of love-lorn CIA spy Locs (aka Lorraine). The reason: an impressionable and lonely immigrant takes offense at Jens’s drawing of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban, hovering above the “happiest people in the world… frowning inexpertly.” And so begins clueless cultural criminal and eternal optimist Jens’s transformation into Henry Larsen, a Broomeville, N.Y., high school guidance counselor. Henry woos Ellen, a heartbroken bar owner. Meanwhile, Locs is futilely and obsessively in love with Ellen’s husband, Matty, a school principal. These mismatches ultimately set off a violent chain reaction of discovery and revenge. As Henry’s world comes undone, the identities of his unlikely protectors are revealed in a hilarious series of bloody blunders. The bizarre moose-eye view opening to this culture-clash horror tale expertly sets the tone for what’s to come. Clarke dazzles with a dizzying study in extremes, cruising at warp speed between bleak and optimistic, laugh-out-loud funny and unbearable sadness. His comedy of errors is impossible to put down.”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for November 2014 says: “It’s long been a credo of mine: any story that begins with a stuffed moose head on the wall of an upstate bar, a spy camera embedded in its eye looking down on a sprawl of gunshot victims… well, attention must be paid. And my attention to Brock Clarke’s weird, wise and witty fifth novel, The Happiest People in the World, never wavered. In a nutshell, sort of: a Danish cartoonist named Jens unwisely draws a cartoon of the Prophet, making him an assassin’s target and prompting the CIA to relocate him to America, where he poses as a high school guidance counselor in a small, strange New York town. That’s where the story gets truly bizarre, often hilariously so. I’m no fan of the term “laugh out loud,” but I did audibly chuckle, a lot. (Example: “it’s all good” really is “the most idiotic expression on the planet.”) Without giving too much away: Jens (now known as Henry) works for Matthew (the school principal), both nursing secrets, both victims of lies. But beneath the convoluted entanglements of small town love and small town spies—veering too close to madcap at times—there’s a deceptively touching story of flawed men who aren’t quite sure how to be fathers, husbands, or men. Or happy. “

When is it available?

Happily, this book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.


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