I was first drawn to Dean Bakopoulos’ second novel because of the title My American Unhappiness. This phrase sums up a lot of what I spend my time thinking about – how convenience, consumption, expansion, and similar American values deemed good by the population actually wreck havoc on our happiness and sense of content. I was pleasantly surprised by what I got out of this novel. A meditation on this unhappiness is definitely included, along with a bit of humor, some romance, and a touch of nostalgia. It’s a well-balanced novel that provides a bit of everything in a pleasing and enjoyable to read package.
Meet Zeke, the Executive Director of a Midwestern humanities nonprofit and the man behind “The Inventory of Unhappiness Project.” A widower following a short-lived and rather young marriage, Zeke is romantically uninvolved, though occupied with the unhappiness project and his beloved orphan nieces. The story unfolds appealingly with pieces of Zeke’s life being released bit by bit, making for a character that continues to grow on readers as the more appealing and endearing aspects of his personality are revealed. Though he ultimately makes some poor decisions in work and the romance department, at that point we’re already invested in this guy and rooting for him despite the odds.
So the unhappiness project. Funded by Zeke’s nonprofit, this inventory receives interviews, messages, and the like from citizens across the country who are asked one major question “Why are you so unhappy?” Zeke is intrigued by respondents’ willingness to share their discontent so readily with strangers, as well as the fact that so few respondents really deny the sad fact that they lead unhappy lives. Responses are littered throughout the novel and they ring with all the hollowness that comes from the consumer-driven, franchise-friendly state of our nation of lonely citizens. Zeke’s musings and reflections on life in America are honest and range from the heartfelt and nostalgic to the hopeless and dismal. I found his attitude toward President Bush (the novel is set in 2008) to be particularly spot on. He recognizes Bush as a leader estranged from and unable to help his people because of his failure to recognize and understand their unhappiness. He looks back at our nation’s finest leaders and identifies a common thread of darkness, melancholy, and depression, while Bush seems to sleep easy at night, out of touch with the problems pervading the nation under his leadership.
But apart from the political observations included, Zeke story includes his own share of family dramas, a quest to find love, and delusions of job security despite the fledgling economy and his secretary’s warnings. This novel packs a pretty mean punch, providing a little bit of something for everyone. It constantly entertains with its quirky characters, unpredictable scenarios, and of course those other situations that are inevitable to the reader, but rarely to Zeke himself. There’s plenty of levity within, but great depth can also be found, particularly in Zeke’s passion project, the Inventory of Unhappiness.
I finished this novel deeply satisfied. I was in the market for a book that would challenge me, make me think a little bit and maybe lend some insight to the state of American society, or at the very least to my own personal life. And it did just that, and then some. I was highly entertained as well as challenged; My American Unhappiness made me laugh just as much as it made me think of things in a new light. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it to anyone in the market for a good read. It’s the kind of novel that’s both satisfying as a beach read, but also stimulating enough for the non-vacation sect.