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book review

‘The Happiest People in the World’ by Brock Clarke

Brock Clarke’s latest novel,  “The Happiest People in the World,” is a transcontinental screwball comedy.
Greta Rybus for The Boston Globe
Brock Clarke’s latest novel, “The Happiest People in the World,” is a transcontinental screwball comedy.

Flames become fiction writer Brock Clarke, particularly the big, engulfing kind that can take down homes. Arson leapt from a second-tier plot point in Clarke’s debut novel “The Ordinary White Boy” to the propulsive through-line of his breakout, “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England,” whose habitually mendacious main character incinerated the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst along with two carnally distracted occupants.

Clarke and his newest protagonist play with fire in the figurative sense in the writer’s fourth, most combustibly funny novel, “The Happiest People in the World,” a transcontinental screwball comedy that mines cathartic (if not consoling) laughs from such front-page flashpoints as global terrorism, government surveillance, and gun ownership.

Clarke’s hapless center of gravity is an imperturbable Danish editorial cartoonist named Jens Baedrup who, in the turbulent aftermath of the incendiary cartoon depictions of Mohammed published by the big-city Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005, pens a seemingly benign response for his local paper.

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Within a week, his house is burned down by the hothead son of a Turkish immigrant, whereupon the artist is wrested from his wife by Danish security agents and spirited into hiding. All of this in the nation that would become popularly known as home of the world’s happiest people. This circuitous underground journey takes him first to Moscow and Berlin, climaxing in a small upstate New York town named Broomeville, where he is installed as the junior-senior high school’s new guidance counselor, courtesy of the CIA.

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The architect behind this absurd reinvention is Locs, a one-time Broomevillian-turned-US secret agent who sees Jens as a disposable pawn in a stratagem to rekindle an old affair with the school’s married principal Matty (or Matthew, as he is referred to by Locs, who is so mulishly loath to employ male diminutive names that she refers to a legendary rock-and-soul musician as Stephen Wonder). Like a bullying movie producer determined to leave her creative imprint on the finished product, however, she first recasts the Danish cartoonist as Henrik Larsen, Swedish émigré.

Jens’s bogus alias effectively lends him a commonality with Broomeville’s inhabitants, most of who seem to be leading a double life, be it carrying on clandestine relationships or, like Locs, working undercover as government agents. “Don’t worry,” Locs assures a wary Jens (who, unbeknownst to all, is secretly involved with Matty’s wife), “Someone’s always watching you in Broomeville.” The irony underlying her cold comfort is palpable: In Broomeville, where seemingly everyone packs a gun, the incipient danger posed by small-town busybodies turns out to be a stand-in for a national security agenda spun out of control.

From the bacchanalian opening tableaux, wherein the drunken revels of a Broomeville watering hole are being monitored by recording equipment stuffed into a moose head, the author imbues his narrative with a creeping sense of violence about to spill. For Clarke, whose earlier novels have doubled as meditations on writers and writing, the most untenable violence may be that inflicted upon the English language by the lazy of tongue. The jargon police in our midst may experience a frisson of guilty elation when the author kills off a character who deflects problems and complications with the catch-all phrase, “Hey, it’s all good!”

As Broomeville’s resident fish out of water, Jens is the perfect arbiter for the peculiarities of American culture and phraseology. True to form, the beleaguered Dane remains unruffled as he dodges the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Jens’s marriage was heading south, in any event, and he holds firm to the mantra that “everything is going to be just fine,” itself a kind of cartoon balloon caption of Scandinavian unflappableness and gentility.

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What Jens gleans about our ardor for pick-up trucks, home arsenals, and Stevie Ray Vaughan is admittedly neither surprising nor profound. Fortunately, the author is a more nuanced cartoonist than his protagonist, whether limning the band director who leads his students through “Let’s Spend the Night Together” or the home ec teacher who “seemed as though she’d blown in from some prairie in her long-sleeved sundresses and heavy braids and her crafty ways of making a little go a long way.” Whenever “The Happiest People in the World” trains its hidden camera on the quotidian absurdities of high school, it’s all good. No, great.

More coverage:

Brock Clarke kickstarts novels with ‘cheap irony’

Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at jan.stuart7@ gmail.com.