Book Quote:

“Americans are fundamentally unhappy, and they are fundamentally unhappy because they suffer from institutional addiction. If you consider the comfort (for most), the wealth (relative), and opportunities (many) with which Americans have matured, it is mind-boggling to consider that anybody here could be unhappy. ”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (JUN 16, 2011)

One of Zeke Pappas’s biggest heroes is Joseph Cornell, an artist who created “assemblages”—most of Cornell’s work were glass-fronted boxes filled with a stunning variety of found objects. Zeke loves Cornell because he “devoted his life to the collecting the unhappy scraps left behind by others and trying to distill them and make sense of them. Cornell’s work to me is about our abandonment of joy, about our reckless inability to hold on to something meaningful. This is an attempt to find meaning—no, to find magic—in our collective dross, in the castoff and the forgotten,” Zeke says during one of his annual visits to the Cornell boxes collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Cornell might well have served as inspiration for Zeke, who works at a mundane job in Madison, Wisconsin. After all, like Cornell, Zeke too wants to find the “magic in our collective dross.” To this end, Zee’s latest (and what he assumes will be his most enduring) work is documenting the unhappiness shared by his fellow Americans. He creates a project called the American Unhappiness Project, which simply documents responses to the question: “Why are you unhappy?” The project is funded by the Midwestern Humanities Initiative an institution that was created in the heyday of the roaring ‘90s but one that is fast fading into irrelevance in the late Bush years in which this novel is set. Responses to that elemental question, as one can imagine, are vast and varied and Zeke whiles away his time collecting and cataloging them all. His office assistant, the comely Lara, is also quite irrelevant to the project, and she knows it. As the institution and the project slowly wind down to their collective last breath, she tries in vain to alert Zeke about the impending disaster.

But Zeke has problems of his own. Back home, his mother is dying from cancer and he takes care of his orphaned grade-school-aged nieces. Zeke himself is a widower—his wife, Valerie Somerville, mysteriously disappeared on a boating trip many years ago. So it is only natural that Zeke wants a sense of normalcy in his life. “Lately when I see [my] friends, attacked by sticky fingers in a loud family restaurant near the Hilldale mall or struggling to change a diaper in the Borders bathroom, I feel not superiority and the tickle of my ample freedom but a searing feeling of envy and loss,” he says. “I want that, I think. That’s what I want.”

This “want” is further accelerated when his mother crafts a will naming Zeke’s sister-in-law Melody, as the potential guardian of the children. There’s hope however. Were Zeke to marry before mom dies, custody reverts back to him. So now Zeke is on a focused mission. With the help of a women’s magazine called Simply You, he makes a list of prospects and tries to woo them serially.

Chief among these prospects is the barista at the local Starbucks, Minn, whom Zeke impresses by accurately predicting random customers’ orders. Starbucks, especially one that makes a well-crafted Americano, is one place where Zeke is relatively happy. “At least among a certain well-educated demographic, Starbucks is a ritual—costly and mildly unhealthy as it is—meant to mitigate our day-to-day unhappiness,” Zeke says.

As the novel moves along, the Feds increasingly hound Zeke—they need to find out exactly how he’s spending the taxpayers’ money after all. Even worse, the principal funder for the initiative, a local Wisconsin senator, has been engaging in inappropriate homosexual relationships with prostitutes.

Finally, Zeke is out on the streets and his flailing attempts to find a wife despite insurmountable odds, start to wear the reader down. My American Unhappiness becomes increasingly surreal towards the end and Zeke’s endless soapbox stances on George W. Bush begin to look like polemic rants. At one point in My American Unhappiness, when Zeke pronounces that he’s on a roll, his assistant Lara, says: “You certainly are. A roll of BS.” It’s tempting to agree with her somewhat.

One responder to the Unhappiness Project sends Zeke a clip from a Robert F. Kennedy speech in which Kennedy quotes playwright Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” If wisdom were indeed to follow all that pain, Zeke’s is hard-won. There is definitely some measure of earned wisdom at the end, but it remains to see if Zeke will use it in constructive ways.

Bakopoulos is most definitely a talented writer but My American Unhappiness too often struggles under the weight of its own ironic asides. Like that famous artist, Joseph Cornell, Bakopoulos too is capable of picking up the everyday and turning it into magic. Fortunately for the reader, there are a few—though not nearly enough—flashes of that very same magic in My American Unhappiness.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (June 7, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Dean Bakopoulos
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Happiness™ by Will Ferguson


June 16, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Facing History, Reading Guide, US Midwest

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