My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos (review)

My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos

My American Unhappiness begins as incisive satire on the lives of liberal arts educated sometimes activists in the panegyric-inducing Bush years, and in that is clever and clear-eyed and perhaps even necessary, but quickly morphs into an off-putting mess. Bakopoulos’s aims and interests are simply too varied. He wants to first, skewer the nonprofit funded navel gazing lives of over-educated liberals, second, create an engaging but increasingly dangerous and unreliable narrator, third, borrow the structure of a romantic comedy while switching genders to reveal the stalking and mate-juggling to be scary and gross, and fourth to wildly entertain his audience with clever asides and absurd situations.

Add to this a smudge of ripped from the headlines political commentary (an important republican senator and one of his major corporate donors are gay lovers) and some pseudo-magical quirk (Zeke, our narrator, can guess the Starbucks orders of strangers to impress a cute barista) and a high minded post-Studs Terkel survey of “American Unhappiness” and what do you have?

Hot dogs, like they make at the factory where Zeke’s dad died the day after 9-11. Fatty salty and ready for ketchupy sweet. The ideal American non-food. There was also a really interesting and completely unexplored subplot about a secret government agency devoted to stamping out cynicism in the humanities, but… there and then gone.

I do not normally enjoy books that trade in pop culture references, but in the opening chapters Bakopoulos dealt so cleverly with some issues of great importance to me, Midwestern Brain Drain, the importance of the humanities, fatherhood, that I forgave all the Facebook, Starbucks, Cracker and Barrel references and even the paint-by-numbers rants against the then-emerging Neo-Con America, at least for the first few chapters.

The lesson I can take from this is that I can enjoy topical branding if it is in the name of Satire. If only Bakopoulos had been committed to that dark art, his talents and my time would have been better used.

Our narrator, Zeke Pappas, runs a nonprofit that funds projects in the humanities that concern the Midwest. He’s beset with personal tragedies (dead college wife, brother killed in Iraq, mother dying of cancer, father dead from heart attack, a conservative family who doesn’t understand him, and a cushy job at a nonprofit that is running out of money and obviously doomed) but is given meaning and joy in life by taking care of his dead brother’s twin daughters. His mother, however, has decided that unless Zeke is married before she passes, that the girls will live with their married aunt in Michigan.

This inspires Zeke, rom-com style, to make a list of his ‘prospects’ including a mid-divorce neighbor, a Starbucks barista, his secretary, and Sophia Coppola.

Most of the narrative has to do with his pursuit of these women, mild successes, and then complete and devastating failures. Zeke is not supposed to be a positive character. He’s a self-absorbed alcoholic prone to flights of indulgent rhetoric and public weeping, but he’s also obviously intelligent, good-looking enough to model for billboards and bed four attractive women in the space of a few months, and has genuine love for the humanities and his nieces and so the message is muddled. Over the course of the novel Zeke is revealed to be a sad sack with latent rapist tendencies and his life is destroyed, but so much of his behavior seems to be at least partially exculpated by the avalanche of personal tragedies in whose terrible force he is caught that we are not encouraged to fully loathe him. Plus he can drop some Chekhov on you like that! The novel ends with a note of Obama-driven hope and reset, leading Zeke to move from Madison to be nearer to the nieces he lost. He even finds a new barista to crush on and impress with his drink guessing tricks.

Had the novel been not only about Zeke but also more about his liberal milieu (which is also mine), allowed Zeke to truly become the monster he is meant to be, and followed the anti-cynicism men in black down the conspiracy rabbit hole, the result could have been formidable and unabashedly entertaining. Instead the novel leaves us frustrated and confused by how much leeway the author thinks we should give to a man who breaks into one girl’s apartment and later follows another into her shower after she told him in no uncertain terms to leave. I think none.

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seagull around the flesh of you

What’s wrong with you lassies? When you go parading your wares around, catching the flotsam-and-jetsam men in your wake, letting ’em pet and seagull around the flesh of you, do you ever, for a moment, think of Michael Murphy? He sits there, only wishing he were blind drunk, watching the whole sordid scene, worshiping you, seeing clear as day the filth attached to those men– so called, jackels more likely– who caught your scent. Michael Murphy! Asking me for a billy-club, grinding his poor teeth down to stumps, drowning, poor boy, drowning! And not even in drink! Do you spare a single thought for ‘im? This Michael Murphy, imperfect, unwanted, full of something as terrible but not quite love? Michael Murphy!?!

No, you don’t, do you? You carry on, innocent as saints, oblivious as the setting sun, slippery as sand, all smiles and laughter, don’t you? Meanwhile, Michael Murphy sees hell on earth, he does, the very harrowing of hell, right there on the floor of his local pub.

You should be ashamed, lassies. In my time, if we met a man like Michael Murphy, we blessed the day we were born, and the day after as well! Nowadays ‘e’s condemned! Unloved and doubtless sleeping in filthy sheets as no woman is there to keep ’em clean. The world’s gone topsy-turvy. If I were thirty years younger I’d show you a thing or two. So he drinks too much- that’s just men! These tee-tot-allers, fancy, sober gents acting like the goddamned English all the time, not men those, gov’ners more like. And worse, these boors, these Americans, drinking less but drunk more, and worse, and without the fight in them! As bad as a woman on the bottle I say.

Oh, Michael Murphy, you were born outside of your day! Had we known ye, Micahel Murphy, you’d be a prince…

(She trails off here, and the author begs apology for the voice inside of him. She came unbidden.)

strategies for capturing the stories of the great plains

 

The Great Plains, as we have seen, is many things. It contains thick layers of rock that formed in oceans, and younger layers of rocks deposited by streams. These rocks have been affected by earth movements and injected by hot molten rock, some of which reached the surface as volcanic rock. The rocks have been carved by streams, dissolved by ground water, partly covered by glaciers, and blown by winds. All of these agents have played important roles in determining the landscape and the landforms of the Great Plains. But the streams were the master agent. They formed the great depositional plain that was to become the Great Plains, and then began to destroy it–leaving only the High Plains to remind us of what it was. Those long miles we travel across the High Plains are a journey through history–geologic history.

 

Both the illustration and the quote are from The Geologic Story of the Great Plains. Interestingly, these geologic plains do not include the eastern half of Kansas, which are my plains. Where I am from, geologic Missouri?

I don’t think so.

I find this map more helpful. 

I wonder why it ends so abruptly at that sharp hook on the Rio Grande– I have seen maps that continue into Mexico. This map also cut off the Northernmost terminus of the Great Plains in Canada. There be dragons, I guess, or worse, politics. 

I ask “what is the Great Plains?” today because I am shaping a storytelling project within it. The project will involve perhaps ten years of travel throughout the region crowdsourcing folktales, or fakelore (the line between the two is actually pretty blurry).

What is crowdsourcing folklore? It’s hijacking oral history. It’s curating imagination. It’s reverse engineering the Brother’s Grimm. It’s… still in the process of being defined and even named, but the form of the project is very clear. I would like to set up folktale workshops all around the Great Plains. In these workshops I would provide the parameters the stories should follow and plenty of research materials made up of regional historical and scientific texts as well as myth and folklore from the world over. Then, over a period of perhaps two weeks, I would help participants hone and share their stories and then present a night of storytelling to the community.

All the original stories would go online. Over the years, however, I would rewrite the stories for style and tone and even sometimes content (can’t promise I won’t) until a tome emerges full of stories that are not rehashed fairy tales nor co-opted Indigenous mythology but…

But something new. Rooted to the Great Plains as thoroughly and specifically as the Big Bluestem, but in the embrace also of this global moment with its swirl of histories and ever-changing technologies.     

One of the issues I face is how and where to organize these trips, how to capture the breadth and depth of this region while not chasing Coronado-like an El Dorado of completeness that will ever be “in the next village.” 

Should these workshops take place in a few cities? Or roam the prairies like wolves once did and will again? Cities would probably yield the most participants and partner organizations, but are also more likely to create urban stories.

Or are there, and this just occurred me to, natural fonts of storytelling? In Kansas, which I know best, I would set up in Lawrence, Lucas, Garden City… but that’s already six weeks of workshops and I haven’t even left Kansas.

The thinking continues outside of this post…