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.