Novels about downward spirals and crack-ups are generally gloomy affairs, but here’s one that shimmers with mischief and offbeat charm.
Like his fine debut, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (2005), this author’s second novel acknowledges life’s dark side. Narrator Zeke Pappas is working on a bizarre oral-history project called An Inventory of American Unhappiness. It’s an example of cart before the horse; first comes the conclusion (“This is America. Everybody is unhappy.”), then the fieldwork (500+ interviews), evidently a case of projection. The 33-year-old Zeke is director of a non-profit created to promote the Midwest’s cultural self-esteem. It’s based in Madison, Wis., and is dependent on federal dollars; but now, in 2008, the cupboard is bare. Zeke’s personal life is topsy-turvy. His father died right after 9/11; his brother Cougar enlisted, only to die in Iraq; Cougar’s fiancée Melody died driving drunk, leaving behind twin daughters. And what of his wife’s death? This is mentioned in passing, a teaser, part of that mischief; the full story emerges slowly. The silver lining is that Melody’s adorable 7-year-olds now live with Zeke, balm for a lonely widower who drinks too much. Zeke’s raising them, helped by his mother, when his world is rocked again by the news that she’s dying of lung cancer. There’s a will. Zeke must marry to retain custody of the girls (more mischief). With his professional life falling apart (sinister federal bureaucrats are auditing him), Zeke must find a mate, fast. What about Minn, the sexy Starbucks barista? Or Elizabeth, his single parent neighbor? Or even Lara, his last employee? With impressive sleight-of-hand, Bakopoulos combines tragedy and farce (a naked Lara threatens to Taser Zeke after he invades her home); the backdrop is “this dreadful reign of George W. Bush.” Through it all, Zeke makes for a good companion, alternately clueless (about his mother) and perceptive (about our “self-referential” Facebook culture).
A dark entertainment infused by a bluesy yearning for a better America.