Book review: My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos

Lots of people were unhappy during the first eight years of this century, but Zeke Pappas seems to personify every single one of them. His father died on September 12, 2001; his brother was killed in Iraq; his brother's wife died in a car accident soon after, and he now lives and cares for their twins with his mother. Any single, 30-something, college-educated, employed male would most likely not be happy if they were still living with Mom and caring for two young girls, but the children are his joy, and the existence he settled into with his mother is one of mutual comfort. So what's the problem?

Dean Bakopoulos' My American Unhappiness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24) looks at eight years of the "dreadful reign of George W. Bush" through the eyes of the very liberal Zeke. Zeke is the director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, a nonprofit that was founded by Republican congressman Quince Leatherberry in the hopes that it would help "clamp down on illegal immigrants." The connection between a conservative politician and a liberal nonprofit are a little murky, but a lot of things were during those years. Unfortunately, funding is now drying up and Zeke seems to be under investigation by some dark government entity created after 9/11.

Zeke lives in Madison, Wis., a city where everyone is "supercharged by yoga, organic food, locally roasted coffee, microbrewed beer, [and] biking to work," but he is an outsider in his hometown. He prefers Starbucks, and he often sits alone at night after he "developed a minor obsession with catalogs, particularly those that featured women's clothing." His life work is creating an "inventory of American Unhappiness," a project that is a "byproduct of an overly cerebral loneliness." He solicits inputs via the internet, and Bakopoulos peppers the narrative with unhappy people from Kiev, Ukraine (via Madison, WI) to Tampa, although I can't imagine anyone being unhappy in Tampa. The sources of unhappiness run the gamut from growth to the president to insincere people to curlers. It's an amalgam of the American experience that is being collected in the heartland, but it's also a project that leaves Zeke in a constant malaise, at times so overwhelming that he is tempted to "never have a masturbatory intellectual thought again."

And if the weight of the country's unhappiness is not enough, Zeke's mother discovers that she has cancer. She is the legal guardian of the twins, and decides to leave custody to their aunt unless Zeke is married by the time she dies, a fate that would "stop time and shatter everything." But Zeke is not without his resources. He charts a course to holy matrimony that would make even a sane person dizzy, but ends up virtually friendless as a result of his overzealous pursuits.

The setting in Madison is no coincidence as it falls at the confluence of the "crumbling Rust Belt and the blighted Grain Belt." Zeke was 24 and "believed in many things" when he accepted his job. He exercised every day and believed that there was "no conflict too deep to resolve, no domestic issue too muddy to clarify." But that was then, and the Bush years have taken their toll on the country and Zeke has become, in his own eyes, one of many Americans who "will be so deliriously happy when this dreadful reign of George W. Bush comes to an end."

Zeke's life is falling apart, from his mother's illness to the government audit that he tries to ignore. It's a situation that he projects onto the country, and he sees the President as the source. Zeke thinks that Bush is "unencumbered by something as pervasive as unhappiness," an opinion that tells him that the president has neither the depth or complexity necessary to lead the country. He longs for a "haunted" leader, just as his family has been haunted since September, 2001.

Zeke's story is satirically zany commentary, perhaps even an indictment, of the first decade of the century. Bakopoulos' first novel, Please Don't Come Back From the Moon, was a gritty coming of age story that left lofty expectations. My American Unhappiness is a strong follow-up and he doesn't make the mistake of retelling the first novel in a different setting. Bakopoulos has perhaps created the next great American literary character in the vein of Philip Roth’'s Nathan Zuckerman, or Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, characters that were recognizable to both those who could identify with them, and to those whom they loathed. Zeke is created in the same mold; he believes that our "American Unhappiness seemed to begin on September 11, 2001, and ended on November 4, 2008," when Barack Obama was elected. We can only hope that Bakopoulos offers an update on Zeke's happiness, maybe sometime around November, 2012.

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