The Happiest People in the World, the new comedy by Brock Clarke, is a strange beast, both solidly fitting in with the author’s eccentric sense of humor—so firmly on display in his previous outings Exley, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England and The Ordinary White Boy—but also serving as something of a departure. It’s the first time Clarke has tackled a book in a third-person omniscient voice and it also contains a much larger cast of characters for the writer to pester with his schemes, duplicities and hurdles.
The book is rooted in truth, taking its inspiration from the 2005 controversy in which a Danish newspaper published a dozen cartoons about the prophet Mohammed, inspiring riots, violent protests and death threats against the cartoonists. From that spark, Clarke takes his fictional protagonist, cartoonist Jens Baedrup, and sets him astray in upstate New York, where the fugitive Dane must pose as Henry Larsen, a high school guidance counselor. It’s a ripe vein of comedy for a writer who once said of his novels, “Men fuck up their lives, then try very hard not to apologize for the fucking up of it, to act as though it didn’t actually happen, in itself empathizable but also a clear example of them fucking up even more.”
Catching up with Clarke at his office in Portland, Maine, where he teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College, the novelist admits his latest novel lives in a similar tradition.
“In some ways, it definitely fits because the main character is forced to go underground and then come back as someone with a different identity and a different nationality,” Clarke says. “He’s basically screwed up already once, but if he pretends he’s a different person with a different past, then surely those mistakes will just disappear. Of course, it doesn’t work out. For me, characters are most interesting when they have something they want to live down or forget, because when I don’t let that happen, interesting things start to happen.”
It’s also something of a spy novel, as Jens/Henry is saddled with a CIA handler, Lorraine “Locs” Callahan, and is being pursued by enemies who didn’t take kindly to his humble cartoon. Clarke also mines humor from shuttling a Dane—reportedly the so-called “happiest people in the world” —to the gloomy wilds of upstate New York.
“I thought it was very funny, thrusting a Dane into the least happy place in the world,” Clarke explains. “There’s no irony cheap enough that I won’t spend 200 pages exploring it. The spy angle came later on when I was trying to make this a novel and not just a gimmick.”
Writing the book in third person happens to have freed up Clarke not only to write in a new style but also to craft the plot in different ways than his previous, largely unreliable narrators.
“It was much more rewarding to write, because it gave me the chance to take a break from certain characters and go to other characters to see how they might feel about the same situation,” he says. “All of these characters have a kind of self-delusion going on. I’m interested in characters who are deluded and these characters in particular all believe that they alone have the answers. I love writing unreliable narrators but it’s limiting because you have to constantly push on that character’s unreliability. With the omniscient voice, I think I was able to create the same effect. There’s a friction between the characters because they’re unreliable but we know exactly what they’re thinking because we’re allowed access into their heads.”
Without giving too much away, there is an act of arson that is closely tied to the plot of The Happiest People in the World, which forces me to ask the author whether his penchant for conflagration is an intentional in-joke.
“It’s true,” he laughs. “My first three books before The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England have arson in them as well. But no, it wasn’t intentional; I was aware that characters were burning things but not that it connected all of my books. Apparently I am a firebug at heart. I don’t light things on fire, but it’s a useful thing in novels, you know? It’s a kind of cleansing act, and it matches a lot of my characters who want to start over—burn it down and move on.”
For all the comedic chops on display, Clarke also balances his strange sense of humor with his flair for storytelling, investing even quirky characters with a likeability that moves readers when their creator puts them at risk.
“I think that was especially important here,” he admits. “It’s a much more violent book than I’ve ever written. These are some people doing some bad things. The CIA agents in the background, manipulating people and assassinating targets—that’s going to have consequences. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t letting myself or readers off the hook by not showing that there’s a price to be paid for all that bad behavior. It’s also a way to show readers that the author is not screwing around. If people are dying, the reader starts to pay attention. In order for that to work, there were hard decisions to be made.”
As someone who has reviewed and enjoyed Clarke’s work, even I’m taken aback when I ask him to describe his own sense of humor.
“Mordant,” he says, somewhat gleefully. “Bitter. Scatological. This may seem ridiculous but the humor in the books is a lot cleaner and more generous than the sense of humor that I have. I often will say things in an exaggerated way at parties just to see what kind of reaction I get, whereas in my books, I hope the humor is more purposeful. In the books, I tend to take things I would say in real life and bend them to fit a person I’m not. I think, for me, comedy allows me to write about serious things in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I approached them in a more serious way. I think it buys me some time, and some slack.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.